I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this life-project I call “living poor”. It started years ago, when I dwelt in Québec. I’d come to realize that no matter how hard I worked, no matter what the pay, I would always be struggling for money. Furthermore, I would always feel beaten down by the knowledge that I was being personally and creatively unproductive during the hours I worked.
For as long as I can remember, I have felt the overwhelming pull to practise what I’m called to do: be of service to others, and to contribute to the world from my creative and intellectual abilities. I do not fancy myself a superior talent worthy of fame or fortune, but I’m a competent and thorough craftsman in a number of areas. There is need for what I do, though it rarely pays, and I will not rob the world of skills I possess by devoting myself to the singular pursuit of an income. Time to write, to compose, to programme, to shop/cook/clean for friends who cannot, to teach and tutor, to be there for people in crisis—this is more valuable than any paycheque.
The pursuit of money dirties everything it touches. There’s a reason why the expression is “filthy lucre”, not “lily-white lucre”, and why money is “laundered”. I’m deeply uncomfortable receiving money for services from people who have no money to spare, especially when those services cost me nothing. I would rather the gratitude and trust of the out-of-work friend whose résumé I prepare than the cold insult of cash.
Lest I be thought naive, it is the pursuit of money that troubles me, not the thing itself. The symbolic exchange of value for value—my bushel of turnips for three copper coins; three copper coins to pay the blacksmith for a hoe—is a necessary convenience. There is much good that cannot be accomplished without it, at least not in societies whose members do not function well cooperatively, such as ours.
An oft-repeated caution is that money is the root of all evil, but the original formulation, in Latin, speaks the truth more clearly: Radix malorum est cupiditas—love of money is the root of all evil.
Our society worships money, and what greater love is there than worship? Practically from birth we we are taught to revere money. Those born into it learn it confers prestige, privilege, and ease. It sets them apart from ordinary mortals. Those less fortunate grow up yearning to acquire it. It has, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant enshrinement of capitalism and the growth of the middle class, become our Holy of Holies. Not to base one’s life upon its acquisition and expenditure is to reject dogma and commit heresy.
The problem with worshipping anything is that the love is not reciprocal. The object of worship, or what it represents, doesn’t love back, except that we imagine it. An acquaintance of mine, a wealthy one, once opined, “You have to love money if you want money to love you.” A clever quip, one designed to make most people nod in rueful agreement, but untrue. The ardent pursuit of money, whether much (say, by gambling on the stock market) or “enough” (eg by earning a steady income), whether attended by success or failure, has wasted far more lives than it has enriched.
None of this is new. It is self-evident, if one takes but a moment to think about it. Or perhaps not so self-evident. Throughout history, prophets and teachers have had to repeat the message. The Buddha. Jesus. Mohamed. Francis of Assisi.
Thoreau, in the first chapter of Walden, “Economy”, famously summed up the personal consequences of devoting one’s life to the pursuit of money: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” [The italics are mine.]
Anyone who bucks the trend of “job at any cost” is marginalized in our society. The decision to embrace living poor is labelled laziness, advantage taking, illness. Irony of ironies. The middle class and wealthier drive everywhere instead of walking, buy pre-prepared and processed foods they could have made themselves, have machines to do their dishes and their laundry and their yard work, throw things out instead of fixing them, buy new socks instead of darning them. That is laziness. The same class fuels the trend to “more for less”, a hallmark of consumerism that enslaves the poor—half a world away so as not to trouble conscience. And are not militant rejection of reality, delusion, and refusal to acknowledge undisputed facts all indicators of a mental illness?
Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, said in 1972: “Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”
Again, not new. Again, self-evident. Yet we act as if it isn’t. We elevate the pursuit of money as a means unto itself, deny that our thinking is circular, and stick our fingers in our ears and shout la-la-la whenever someone points to facts like “wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”
Money is the life-blood of our society, every monetary exchange a beat of its unfeeling heart, which creates a perpetual psychic noise, like real blood rushing through our ears. For the poor, it is a loud, distressing buzz. For the middle-class, a hum, persistent but low-level. The rich, of course, build soundproof mansions.
We can’t escape it. The money-meter never stops. Every second of every day, we’re forced to spend. Rent, electricity, gas, phone, TV, Internet...these suck up money like a vacuum cleaner even while we sleep.
I was talking about this with my roommate, John, the other night. Like me, he’s one of those who’s chosen “living poor”. Both of us have observed something few remark upon: if you live in the city, every time you leave your home you wind up spending money. There’s almost no way to avoid it unless all you fancy is a stroll around the block to take in the sickening air. In fact, most urbanites only ever leave their homes for money, either making it—and getting to work alone can cost thousands per year—or spending it.
In short, our lives are circumscribed by money. It makes vassals of us all. Being a vassal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided one’s ruler is benign. Money is anything but. Truly, cupiditas, the love of money, is the root of evil, if evil be the misery inflicted on the people of Nigeria, the human rights atrocities of China, the rioting in bankrupt countries such as Greece and Spain, the sweatshops found in Free Trade zones, the death of workers crushed or burned in unsafe factories, the despoliation of the Earth, and the destruction of the biosphere.
But the most pernicious evil of all is the waste of human potential. When people’s value to society is measured solely by their income, it is tantamount to saying they are worthless otherwise—patently untrue, but so pervasive it is rarely questioned. If you don’t or cannot “monetize” your skills (a sickening neologism), they have no value. You have no value.
Value to what? Why “the economy”, of course, a tool we have elevated to the status of a raison d’être. Activities of real value—to your neighbours, your community, your culture, the globe—are actively discouraged by the credo “if it isn’t earning money then it hasn’t any worth”. Those with skills that fall outside the purview of “employment” lose the opportunity to practise them when “real jobs” become the only thing that counts. Society is poorer for it, but somehow that’s okay because it fuels the economy.
I’m not “against” money. I’m not against commerce. Civilizations need the trust implied by exchanging tokens of value, whether paper or gold or numbers on a screen. I’m not a communist, though I confess to being a committed social democrat. I’m not even against capitalism, when practised with restraint and oversight.
What I am against is wasting time in meaningless employment, which more times than not contributes to the ecological and human ills that threaten to destroy us. I, and others like me, are compelled to use our skills to be of use, not to make a buck. In other times, we might have gravitated to the holy life, as priests or monks, or nuns. Vows of poverty were once respected. In today’s society, we must, instead, commit ourselves to living poor, by which I do not mean “in poverty”, but rather valuing oneself, one’s skills, one’s contributions to the world, as more important than a steady income.
It is not an easy choice. For some of us, it’s not a choice at all, but rather a vocation—which, from it’s Latin root, denotes a calling, a summons to be useful.