Riddle me this: What is taboo yet essential to human function? Is everywhere but no object? Is intimate but avoided by intimates? Is “right up there with oxygen” in its importance yet is studiously sidestepped?
I could go on with riddling paradoxes but you probably already guessed the answer: Money. Since this blog is all about money, you had an unfair advantage. I could go on but you might not agree with all of my descriptors. That’s fine. We can talk about those later. Today, we are going a bit deeper into the phenomenon.
The issue is not just money but our relationship with money, personal and collective. By “relationship with money,” I do not merely mean the thesaurus words like “association,” “connection” or “rapport.” I mean our insides, our emotions and our feelings. I most especially mean the parts where we feel that gnarl in the pit of our bellies when we think about money and what it means to us and our loved ones.
The issues are often grounded in what the Life Planners call early money memories or messages. These are generally something intense from our formative years. For some of us, those memories are literally toxic, particularly if coupled with other virulent negatives rooted in childhood trauma. For others, these may recall special loving relationships. However, even the mentally healthy among us are likely to have some quirks in our personal relationships with money.
The scary part is our inability to talk about money relationships combined with their central importance to our personal and social functioning. It is taboo; so much so that there are quite literally no words in language, English or any other of my ken, describing a relationship between money and individual human beings. Think about that one. What else even comes close to being so veiled? I once heard philosopher Jacob Needleman observe, “Everyone is weird about money.” Accordingly, not only is money an ultimate, intimate, challenge for each of us as individuals, it similarly tests our aggregated relationships with each other. I think he was spot on.
What are we to do with it? How are we supposed to think about it? How are we supposed to integrate it with our lives?
This issue of our relationships with money is key to so much of what is engaging us as individuals and as communal beings trying to make our ways on Planet Earth to the tune of seven billion people.
There is irony here. Money is the ultimate communal instrument. Obviously, the phrase “my money” is an oxymoron in a very real sense. Money has no meaning at all but that it enables us to function effectively and productively with each other. The trouble is that each of us weirdos not only has his or her own money kinks to worry about but we bring them with us wherever we go, whatever we do, with whomever we encounter.
This has implications. For example, this means our leaders are not only weird about money personally; they are also weird when they speak for their institutions, public and private. They are weird when they negotiate contracts of various sorts. They are weird when they make large investments or purchase real estate. They are weird when they create budgets or fight about budgets or actually fail to create them at all. And they are most especially weird when addressing “The Great Issues of the Day.”
Consider. Two books provide the basis for today’s prevailing money philosophies. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Karl Marx’ Capital was published in 1867. Nearly four hundred years of thought have passed between them and the best we can do is pit the “poor” against the “rich.” Really? Like all that money offers is conflict? Don’t the “poor” have access to substantial portions of modern society’s wealth? Inequality does not make envy less deadly.
In a recent column for the New York Times (August 22, 2012), Tom Friedman suggested there are four pressing issues facing America:
- The nexus of debt, taxes and entitlements;
- Education and upgrading worker skills;
- Energy and climate challenges;
- Immigration policy.
Every one of these has significant personal money issues. Each requires that we explore our personal relationships with money.
Where to from here? I suggest a good first step is to begin understanding money’s nature and how it challenges us. That means lifting the taboos on talking about money in personal contexts. The fact that the news media addresses money constantly does not help us with our relationships with it. That will require conversation, self-examination and brutal honesty.
Next, it will require a careful look at our presuppositions. For example, this class divide business. Do the “poor” benefit from certain aspects of social wealth? Where does that fit in to our collective conversation? Do the “rich” contribute to the common wealth or are they just egregious moochers? Likewise the “47 %” that pay no taxes? Why are they in this position? What does it mean? Who counts? How many of us can avoid dependency in our lives? Actually none of us. Babies are dependent. The elderly are generally dependent. What is valid and what is invalid about our social expectations with respect to money?
This blog will continue to probe these issues.