#65: Denunciation is still attachment (the ABC of money, part 17)

13th December, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that denunciation is still attachment, including:

  • how in the most important respect, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ are the same;

  • the origin story of the Buddha, and one way it’s still relevant; and

  • moving from a fixation on fixing problems with objects of belief, to fixing the system of belief that deified the objects in the first place.

This is part 17 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

To be against something is still to be defined by that something. To denounce money is not to have a healthy relationship with it; it’s a different sort of abusive one.

One of the saddest birthday messages I’ve ever seen was from someone, who, to celebrate his 40th, announced to Facebook that the thing he enjoyed most about turning 40 was that he “hated wealth and privilege as much as ever.”

Not corruption. Not exploitation. Not valuing paintings over people. Wealth and privilege. Perhaps it was a cry for help from an undeniably (by virtue of living in the UK in the 21st Century) very wealthy and privileged person.

Motivation aside, it’s hardly a new thought. Absolutely nothing about money and humans ever is.

Take Spinoza, for example, in his Ethics:

For the poor man, when he is also greedy, will not stop talking about the misuse of money and the vices of the rich. In doing this he only distresses himself, and shows others that he cannot bear calmly either his own poverty, or the wealth of others.

Or Aldous Huxley, in The Perennial Philosophy:

One may be poor but desperately concerned with what money can buy, full of cravings, envy and bitter self-pity.

Or historians Will and Ariel Durant, reflecting on 6,000 years of human behaviour:

By and large, the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them.

Our birthday boy wasn’t poor. He believes he is, of course. Or rather he believes he’s not ‘rich’. Because just about nobody does.

As Morgan Housel reported: ‘Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is worth a billion dollars. But he told The Financial Times earlier this year that he considers himself well-to-do, not rich. “I can’t even say ‘rich’,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.” ’ [Blankfein’s] short-sightedness is scarier than other people’s, but as far as his, and other people’s brains are concerned, it’s identical.

Moaning about not being rich is just so much easier than coming to terms with the consequences of admitting that if you can’t be happy being among the richest fraction of a per cent of people who’ve ever lived, money really isn’t your problem.

Of course a single hater-wots-gonna-hate isn’t worth writing about.

Nor is the idea that some ladies and gentlemen doth protest rather too much – that mental suppression is subconscious superglue.

However, the consequences of relating to money in this way – and the unconscious manner in which we do it – are.

As Plato wrote in the Laws: ‘Love of wealth wholly absorbs men […] on this the soul of every citizen hangs suspended.’

Every citizen.

From prince to pauper to… something else

But first, a quick retelling of the origin story of The Buddha.

For those that don’t know the tale, before he was The Buddha (the ‘awakened one’), The Buddha was a young Prince, living in palatial comfort.

Daddy the King was fearful of what might become of the young Prince if he were to not have every desire instantly met, and if he were to experience anything other than material comfort. So he kept the youth from seeing the ‘real world’. King Dad, like a multi-divorced multi-millionaire, was apparently not a fan of growth that can’t be measured in numbers.

Despite the external comfort and stagnation masquerading as stillness and security, something inside the not-yet-awakened-one was uncomfortably stirring. This gnawing feeling grew and grew until one day the Buddha-to-be legged it – leaving the palace to see what he could find outside the marble walls.

What he found was suffering.

Poor people. Ill people. Dead people.

This was a bit of a downer. So much so that the Prince became a pauper.

Marble baths and fancy feasts clearly weren’t the answer, so obviously a total lack of marble, bathing, or feasting were!

Travelling around living off handouts, sleeping in slightly suspect places, and washing less regularly than one may consider completely conscientious… Buddha became the first backpacker.

However, after a while as an aesthetic, all the Prince really lost was a lot of weight, and most of his dignity.

‘Dammit!’ he thought. ‘This is no fun. And it’s not working any better than the palatial gig.’

So he sat under a tree for ages until he became enlightened. The end.

(We’ll fill in the gaps of the story next time; they’re not relevant yet.)

One can live well, even in a palace, take two

Last week, we looked at Marcus Aurelius’ statement that ‘One can live well, even in a palace’. Specifically, we looked at using it to question (not claim!) the idea, so deeply woven into our collective consciousness, that living in a palace is better than not living in a palace.

We looked at the importance not of judging the value or otherwise of living in a palace, which is ultimately irrelevant, but of simply stopping and asking: is this an idea that’s so objectively true that it makes sense to dedicate your life to blindly following its implications?

The importance of this comes largely from the fact that no bugger does it.

When it comes to life choices, even the slightest questioning of them – despite it being the only thing likely to make them consistently better in future – is never welcome. Especially if you’re rich but pretending not to be, precisely in order to not have to question what you’re choosing to do with your life, because you need do that only when you’ve arrived at ‘rich’.

‘Screw you! I want to buy a big yacht! Don’t tell me I don’t “really” want to buy a big yacht! I’ve worked towards this for a decade, I’m damn-well going to have it! Stop calling me an idiot!’

This blind spot lies at the heart of many people’s money problems. Both pining for palaces and sour-grapesing them, mean choosing to live in a world where money is the measure of all things. It means choosing to believe that if only you had your fair share, your problems would go away.

The Buddha’s story of leaving the palace gives us another angle to read Aurelius’ statement about the possibility of being happy even if you’re forced to live in one.

First we asked, borrowing from Bertie Russell: ‘What is the use of making everybody rich if the rich themselves are miserable?’

Prompted to see that this misery grips all groups that define themselves by their wealth – the rich, the poor, the Prince, the aesthetes, the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – we are now asking: ‘What is the use of everybody playing the same game of money-as-make-believe-meaning if winners and losers alike are miserable?

What if the problem wasn’t the object of the belief, but the system of belief that deified the object?

Is there a better way?

Next week, a long-winded way of saying ‘yes’.

(For those who’ve jumped to the conclusion that this isn’t relevant to them because they have no plans to bugger off to India and starve themselves, nor crave living in an actual palace, and that they’re not insecure enough to be extravagant, and all they want is about 20% more than they’ve currently got, please know that In my decade of working with multi-millionaires, there was no more common claim than ‘We’re not extravagant.’ Wanting a yacht may be the mark of a fool, but that doesn’t make not wanting one the apotheosis of wisdom. Whatever ‘level’ one may deem ‘reasonable’ or ‘sensible’ or whatever, where there is a ‘level’ (unrelated to escape from actual poverty) one’s world is still being viewed in the exact same way. Even the person in the ‘middle’ denouncing both poverty and palaces is, by doing so, ensuring that their perception of their own position is still defined by them.)

#67: The ABC of money, part 18: Addicted to a dream

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