The Unreal Value Of Money

March 18, 2013

DSCN0951_1275Lloyd is a poet who lives in shelters, yet he refuses to accept government assistance or pity. He pays his $10-per-night fee at the shelter by selling poetry chapbooks on the streets. The poetry is his own and  the man knows how to write. He should: he has a B.A. in English Literature and he was mentored by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most brilliant poets. When asked why he refuses government welfare, he jokes it is his bourgeois upbringing.

Being a product of the middle-class myself I understood what he meant. For those born rich,  money is as mundane as tap water. Those without also do not get worked up about where the next meal is coming from, or how they will make rent. For them it is just how life has always been. It is those of us in the middle who bear the extraordinary burden of money. It so dominates our lives that we do not even notice its power, except perhaps in a crisis.

This is tax season (or as I call it, Accountant’s Christmas) and people like us stress to gather all of the receipts and we jump through hoops navigating the tax forms which seem to get more convoluted by the year.

I took some time from worrying about the consequences of not filling in Box#68 to ponder the bigger picture. Given that money is imaginary, it struck me as ludicrous that to be so fussed about it. Money has reality and value only because we humans decided it has. Our pets do not stress about it. All of us are born without personal wealth, and we certainly leave this world without it. But in-between, o boy!, does it ever matter.

It determines how we are treated. It dictates whom we attract as friends and spouses. It decides how much power and influence we sway in nearly every area of life(including in court). It unleashes powerful passions of greed, envy, hubris and domination. Yet money is as imaginary as those borders between nations when viewed from space. But try to opt out of the system of money and you find yourself booted from the human race. As has happened to Lloyd.

Actually, Lloyd reminds me somewhat of Hindu sadhus or hermits. They are individuals for whom the desire to transcend the passions of the mind is so intense that they abandon their homes, their families and their wealth. By eschewing money, they seek to gain true freedom. They subsist on the currency of kindness. In return for food they trade spiritual counsel, and solace to the grieved. Perhaps the most famous sadhu of all time is the Buddha, who succeeded spectacularly in supplanting goodness as a global currency.

Which brings me back to Box#68 of my tax return. Is there a way in which I can borrow that  attitude of those sadhus but still  participate in this monetary merry-go-round of taxes and mortgages and insurance?

It is a tough experiment but necessary for the good of my well-being. I seem to have a high tolerance for emotional and physical pain, but financial woes really leave me anxious and exhausted. So now I am questioning whether I have given the concept of money more value in than it deserves? Perhaps if I too replaced the dollar for goodness as my currency of choice, at least within my consciousness, I may get less worked-up about it.

I would like to believe that the universe operates on a quid pro quo system, i.e. it pays back exactly what you pay out. If you move about like a total A-hole, well guess what bud, it is how you will be paid back. If karma exists for the bad, then surely the converse has to hold true? If you do good to others, goodness is paid back to you?

I was reminded of this just this week at the homeless shelter. A smart-looking young man in a business suit requested a hair trim. I thought to myself: who does he think he is? I donate this service to the homeless, not to jerks in business suits. Luckily I held my tongue. As I trimmed his hair he began speaking. He had recently returned from the Congo where he was doing humanitarian volunteer work for the past year. After two-hundred resumes being submitted, he had finally landed a job. His suit was $15 from a charity shop. He wanted to make a good impression on his first day on the job, but with two dollars left to his name, he did not imagine he would ever find a barber to trim his hair. He happened to drop by at the shelter to thank someone when he spotted me and the sign for free haircuts. Co-incidence? Or is it the grand barter of the universe? Was this young man owed goodness because he had paid out enough of it into the world?

I believe the latter. It occurred to me that this young man just confirmed for me what I had been thinking. He paid me for his haircut with this confirmation. Quid pro quo. Each time I struggle with the latest tax bureaucracy, I will think of him. I will tell myself these are only numbers. In the grand scheme of things, they have no meaning. Help will come from unexpected places when needed. Meanwhile, just keep putting out goodness into the world regardless.


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