Monday, September 30, 2013

Money and Spirit

I've been reading Lynne Twist's The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the Wealth of Our Inner Resources (2006) with a degree of ambivalence.

On the one hand, it's certainly better than reading about what Congress is currently doing (or not doing). 

Personally, I'm kind of at the point where, I don't care if you're Democrat, I don't care if you're Republican, I don't care if you're Green, I don't care if you're Liberal, I don't care if you're Tea Party: stop holding your constituents hostage every fall with this crap about the budget.

I think we need a law that states that if a fiscally responsible budget isn't passed every year, by such-and-such a date, all members of Congress are officially laid off, and they will be required to serve in the military or in various federally-funded public service sectors, without pay, until their replacements are elected.

Harry Reid can answer phones for FEMA.  John Boehner can clear brush out in Yellowstone.  Things like that.

I think our Congressional representatives need a better sense of their own job description.  Because right now, I can't see a single person in Congress, from any party, who is doing anything I would actually consider a form of employment worthy of a paycheck of any kind.  But that's just me.

Okay, so this was at least some of the source of my ambivalence towards Twist's book.  I'm already in a bad mood about "money," writ large. 

I'm also always suspicious when people who have a lot of money, who hang out with people who have a lot of money and who make money getting people with a lot of money to give them their money (Twist is a fundraiser), take it upon themselves to tell the rest of us about the value of our "inner resources."

Cuz to me, that always kinda comes across like telling people, "You're so lucky you're poor.  It keeps you so grounded.  You know, in a dirt-floor-hut kinda way.  You must really cherish your family ties, since you really and truly can't live without them... or you'd starve.  That must be nice."

I'm also wary of people who claim that there is a "soul" and a "spirit" to be found in relationships with money.  Because money isn't actually necessary for functioning human societies, and some societies don't actually have or use it.

But Twist in fact points this out.  Her book reads like a kind of Buddhist relationship to money, which also gave me a bit of tic for a while there, because really and truly, Buddhists believe that the source of all human misery is attachment.  This is why Buddhist monks practice poverty and asceticism.

So in a way, Twist's approach already has a bit of a disclaimer.  None of us want to be Buddhist monks, of course, because we like our self-centered lives and our comfy stuff, so... this is the next best option.  An option that boils down to an awareness of the fact that money isn't everything, basically.

I did like Twist's book, though, in some ways.  I think we could all use reminders that we aren't what we buy or what we can afford, and that life isn't always about buying and affording stuff.  Twist's anecdotes about people who have achieved a healthy relationship to money are interesting, although the points she makes tend to be a bit redundant.

About halfway through the book, I ended up feeling that there wasn't much that would be new to learn or think about in the remaining pages, and this is never a good feeling for me.  Repetition is a key to learning, but it's not the only key, obviously.

But I really liked Twist's observations about creating sustainable communities in impoverished areas.  She takes to task traditional conceptions of "charity" which are, in fact, premised on schemes of power and social superiority. 

I like Twist's attentiveness to the way in which power plays a role in our impulse to "write a check" for a charitable cause and rest on our laurels.  I also like her emphasis on the fact that there is nothing "natural" about economic behavior that revolves entirely around a system of competitive accumulation--because nature in no way boils down to a simplistic system of "survival of the fittest."   It is a far more complex system of give-and-take, and we tend to lose sight of that.

If some things are more important than money, then we need to figure out what those things are and behave accordingly: this seems self-evident, and yet, as Twist points out, it's worth repeating. 

In cases where we do possess money and the power that comes with it, we need to think about how to align our non-monetary values with the ways in which we utilize our wealth.  If we pay more attention to what other people have to offer, instead of always reducing everything to the bottom line, we can begin to look at our communities and our circumstances in new ways.

Twist offers several compelling examples, but my favorite is the one about the women who wanted to set up a teahouse.  In a remote African village, a group of elderly women realized that they needed to find a way to survive and function as contributing members of their society.  They could no longer farm or do the kinds of labor that the younger members of the community were expected to do, but they were by no means willing to consider themselves useless. 

They came up with the idea of setting up a teahouse on a well-traveled road.  Farmers and merchants could stop in on their way to and from the local markets, to rest and relax a bit.

They built a makeshift shelter entirely on their own and got started.  Eventually, they contacted The Hunger Project, which is how Twist found out about them.

The women didn't need money, and they didn't ask for it.  They needed teacups.  That was something they didn't have and couldn't acquire, so they asked for help obtaining it.

Although this might seem like an insignificant difference (obviously, you can use money to buy teacups), as Twist points out, it isn't.  The women didn't see themselves as poor or as lacking in resources, they saw themselves as lacking one specific resource that another person or organization might be able to provide.

So that's what they asked for. 

As Twist points out, providing that one resource--or putting a person in touch with someone who might be able to provide it-- is very different from simply writing a check and giving a donation.  It levels the playing field: people with money aren't necessarily perceived as more "powerful" in a system of barter and exchange (since I may not actually need money, if I live somewhere where there isn't much to buy) and the people who don't have money may nevertheless have things that are extremely marketable (like ideas and integrity and ingenuity).

Again, it doesn't seem like much of a shift in mindset, but I think Twist is right that it is an important one.

Several years ago, I started looking into the possibility of donating blankets to Project Linus.  Project Linus gives handmade blankets to children and families in need, whether through hospitals or shelters.  One of the local chapters I approached openly indicated that, if the blankets are nice enough, they set them aside and sell them at their local fundraiser.

I like Project Linus.  Make no mistake, I give them blankets.  But still, when I heard this, I didn't like it, and it took me a while to figure out why. 

My gut reaction was, "I don't want my blankets sold.  If I did, I could sell them and give you the money.  I want someone who needs a blanket to have this blanket right here.  Particularly if it seems like a really nice one.  For me, that's the whole point: I can make something they need, and I want to do that."

But I eventually realized that, in American culture, what I was saying would probably seem like splitting hairs to most people.  If you're giving something that can be converted into cash, you're essentially giving money. 

Except that you aren't, always, and I think that you shouldn't be, always. 

If there is a spirit to money, it lies in the spirit of the exchange, something that is not always reducible to the bottom line.  This is the point that Twist's book made extremely well, and that made it, in my opinion, valuable reading. 

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