#63: A problem shared

29th November, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that what you have is a terribly misleading substitute for what you are becoming, including:

  • the difference between the role of money in Mediterranean mountain and city life;

  • the weirdness of talking about living a life of ‘intimacy, dignity, beauty’ while still ‘having nothing’; and

  • another broken-record rant about how encouraging conscious consumption is not the same as telling everybody to be a cheapskate.

Having everything isn’t incompatible with feeling empty. That should shake us into questioning our default assumptions about how to live more vigorously than it does.

A few weeks ago, I was pretending (poorly) to be a mountain goat.

I was in Italy, frolicking through forests, climbing up (and falling off) boulders, and scaling slabs of rock with a level of grace more akin to a new-born deer than a gravity-defying goat.

On a hike, in between sucking in the delicious mountain air, and peeling rather less-delicious spider webs from my face, I got talking to the guide, Lisa.

Lisa had grown up in the mountains before moving to the city, so I was interested in her take on what distinguished mountain people and city people in Italy.

She articulated something I’d noticed a thousand times in investigating the wisdom (and idiocy) of using money to live better, but had never heard expressed so starkly.

The city folk, she told me without a pause, were waaaaaay more individual.

Human life is in many ways one long string of problem solving. (Or ‘puzzle’ solving if ‘problem’ leads you to think only of ‘bad’ things.)

Because the mountain people don't have the means to solve problems by themselves, Lisa told me, they solve them as a community. They don’t have fewer problems. Often they don’t even have different ones. But they see completely different solutions. Everybody helps each other out, and is glad to do so. Not being asked for what city folk could see as an unwelcome imposition isn’t to dodge a bullet, it’s to suffer the worst wound of all – feeling like you don’t matter.

Other differences are there too, of course. Mountain houses look less like pocket-sized palaces, but more like homes, for example. And mountain people don’t have the space specifically designed for hosting dreamy dinner parties; but they do more often eat together, with the emphasis on connection, not competition.

They better remember that nothing you consume is a substitute for anything you connect with, and where the human connection you are ultimately seeking exists, costly consumables are irrelevant to your enjoyment of an experience.

One of the books I took to read when recovering from my slightly too excitable approach to running up hills and my far-from-efficient climbing technique was Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise.

In it, she recounts a story from her days as a foreign correspondent in then-divided Berlin, that made her rethink the role money played in a life well lived.

This realization [being drawn more and more to the ‘poor’ Eastern side of Berlin] unsettled my sense of personal progress and education: it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life; it was possible to ‘have nothing’ in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.

Imagine a child brought up in the most American of Americas. Every day of their childhood, the walls of their collective worldview are strengthened by stories that make it clear: if in doubt, follow the money. These stories may be unspoken, but they’re that much more psychologically penetrating as a result.

These stories tell our all-American child that there is a direct link between ‘standard of living’ and ‘cost of living’. This is great. So great. The greatest. When the news is awash with stories of gunning downs and shooting ups that make you question if your home really is ‘the greatest country in the world’ as everybody keeps telling you to a slightly creepy degree, along comes a GDP per capita stat to put your mind at ease. To say screw you, doubts, I’ve got faith in my direction.

Not sure what matters? Don’t be silly! Money matters! Not because of itself, of course – I’m not a psycho! – but of all the things it can buy! Value stuff like time, and energy, and intimacy, and belonging, and happiness? Money can buy them all!

I want to draw a parallel here between the starkness of Cold War Berlin and more mundane concerns of each of our daily lives.

Re-read that quote above: ‘it was possible to “have nothing” in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.’

Does it strike you that it’s possible to read a line like that and not be stopped by its strangeness? You may have just done so.

If you live in a world where you can in effect say ‘intimacy and dignity and beauty are nothing’? then it’s probably time to question that’s the right world to live in. The good news is that while many may live in this world, it is a world of its inhabitants’ construction.

Each of us construct our worlds, day in and day out, whether we swear a creepy allegiance to a flag each morning or not.

We don’t do it consciously, of course. No one walks around saying you can have intimacy and dignity and beauty and ‘have nothing’. We’re all the more screwed because we don’t.

I wrote recently elsewhere about how financial-planning people go about goals all backwards.

We all know that what makes for a flowing, flourishing, life is connection and belonging stuff, yet rather than seek that out, we mistakenly go to the complete opposite end, and pursue isolation. We con ourselves into thinking that ‘having a massive mansion to host a big dinner party’ is what makes for connections, as opposed to, errr, the actual connections... which isolating yourself in a palace tends to work against.

It’s often not our underlying ‘goals’ that are faulty, but the shoddy substitutes we deceive ourselves into believing will achieve the same ends.

Because, alas, it always seems to need clarifying: the hiking guide’s and Tippett’s messages are not about glamourising poverty. They are not a paean to parsimony, nor a fight for frugality against the forces of frivolity.

They’re not an argument that the lives of mountain folk are objectively better than those of city dwellers, or that one sort of person is better or smarter than another. Give a poor mountain community a ton of cash, and they’d no doubt be led just as easily astray by the shiny but shoddy substitutes as anyone else. Remember the lessons of Rat Park. The world is full of crack addicts living perfectly respectable lives purely because they haven’t yet been sold on the pipe as the solution to all their ills.

These stories are rather a prompt to remember the only freedom that ultimately matters… the freedom for.

To remember to be moved externally by what moves us internally.

To remember that when it comes to what matters, we want to live in the becoming mode, rather than stay stuck believing that what we have determines who we are.

To remember to align what we care for with what we care about, and that however much we may be wired to believe otherwise, a life well wasted is not the same as a life well lived.

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