By now, my boys might be tired of hearing me say that we were born upside down and raised backwards. I’m surprised that they didn’t get more mileage out of my admission. “You can’t tell me what to do! You said yourself that you have it all backwards!” Maybe by the time they realized that I included myself in my decrial, they were past that kind of manipulation. Or, maybe they realized that I was trying my best to counteract an inherited state of affairs without much guidance, and they cut me some slack.
I’ve been thinking for a long time about something we all seem to have upside-down and backwards: money. I like telling people that money is evil, just because it gets such a predictable rise out of them. Do I truly think that money is evil? For all intents and purposes, in this society, yes. Many people like to point out the advertised role of money which, I agree, is neutral. Money was intended to be an exchange mechanism, a convenience, an expedient tool for doing business. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s neither the issue nor the problem. Focusing on that aspect of money to the exclusion of more important issues is a kind of denial. We all know that money is far more than a tool.
Money gives us peace.
Money defines our status, even our identity.
Money makes us bold.
Money makes us right, or at least provides an appearance of being right.
Money promises success.
Money promises happiness.
Money is power.
Money makes all things possible.
When we pray, how often is it to ask for more money or for something that will help get us more money? When we become anxious, how often do our anxieties revolve around money, either directly, i.e., we need more of it, or indirectly, i.e., we see it as the only route to get what we want?
Community health studies around the world have shown strong correlations between community socio-economic status and the physical and mental health of members. The obvious, knee-jerk solution for improving health in low-income communities? Improve socio-economic conditions, so that health will improve. The answer to our ills is more money. A documentary I recently saw on the subject focused on cortisol levels. As the stress and anxiety of struggling to make ends meet decrease, ongoing cortisol levels decrease, (along with other factors,) and health improves. The documentary never asked why cortisol levels are so tightly coupled to socio-economic status. We all know why, so why ask? What’s more, we take it for granted. Why do we worry about money? That’s just what we do. It just makes sense.
Who takes the obvious alternative seriously: decouple ourselves from money? We avoid that option, because we are so permeated with the belief–in practice if not in principle–that money is fundamental to everything. We barely know how to start thinking about decoupling from it. What does that even mean? The thought conjures up images of idealistic, vacant-eyed, smiling zombies, wandering around, oblivious to hard realities like food, clothing, shelter, and the peculiar status that only consumerism affords.
Am I going too far? We all know that money isn’t the answer to everything. Or so we like to claim. And yet, when problems arise, what do we do? What do our first response teams consist of? Shopping therapy? Splurging? Workahol? A second mortgage? Ask yourself what you do when faced with serious problems. Ask yourself what constitutes a serious problem in the first place. What makes you lose sleep? What fries you? What daunts you? And what does your anticipation of help and relief entail? Where do you look for help and relief? What, more than any other single subject, have you spent time discussing, advising, and warning your children about? Who–or what–is your Superman?
Now, ask yourself how key money was in your answers.
We don’t pray to God, Gaia, the Cosmos, or the Universal Spirit merely about money and money-dependent matters. Of course we don’t–after money and money-dependent matters are under control. Once our financial conditions are secure, we have the leisure to consider our fellow man and noble ideals. After money came first. How much do we think about our fellow man and ideals like love, equality, and justice when facing financial hardships? In fact, how centrally does money figure into our love for those dearest to us? ‘Til death do us part, except if the money runs out, which statistically is the case in a majority of divorces.
And how do we choose to express our love for those dearest to us? What form do those expressions take? I wonder how much love for children gets stolen from them because their parents get down, discouraged, and depressed about their inability to “provide” for their children. Provide what? Too often, with stuff. Children want love, warmth, support, attention, and above all for their parents to be present. We want to provide them with those things, but first we believe we must provide them with stuff. Of all the terrible aspects of depression, the most damaging is that we’re gone. We have left the building, retreating from our failures over money, mourning the stuff it could have provided. Our kids see our vacant bodies, have no clue how to get us back, and wonder what they did to drive us away.
We flatter ourselves by indulging in lofty aspirations after finances are in order. How many lofty aspirations did we ignore and violate in order to achieve “financial security,” that glibly accepted oxymoron? Maybe the real question, if we’re honest with ourselves, isn’t simply what we want, but what comes first.
Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
— Matthew 6:31-33
Jesus didn’t say that we must have faith that “these things will be added to you” while still enslaved to a money fetish, racked with anxiety, and popping Prozac to manage. He didn’t say that we should be reckless and unwise with financial affairs. He certainly wasn’t giving license to be lazy and unproductive. Those are all straw man versions of what he said, easy to knock down and beside the point.
The point is: money is not the point. Something else is the point. Something else comes first.
When we get our priorities straight, money and the things it can buy don’t come first. Our society got it backwards. We have had it backwards. To get it right, first, we need to decouple. Then we need to hook up with what matters. Where our treasures are, that’s where our hearts will be. Cortisol tracks what we love: the things that come first in our hearts and minds. If that happens to be money then, for us, it is evil.