By David Loy
• What is money? We use it every day, so we must understand how it works… or do we? Perhaps our familiarity keeps us from appreciating just how strange money actually is – and how it uses us.
What is a dollar bill? A piece of paper. You can’t eat it, ride in it, or sleep on it. The same is true of digits in bank accounts. In and of itself, money is literally worthless, in effect nothing. Yet money is also the most valuable thing in the world, because we have collectively decided to make it so. It is our socially agreed, and legally enforced, symbol of value. The anthropologist Weston LaBarre called it a psychosis that has become normal, “an institutionalized dream that everyone is having at once.” A dream that sometimes turns into a nightmare.
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Needless to say, there is a karmic rebound. The more we value money, the more we find it used–and the more we use it ourselves–to evaluate us. We end up being manipulated by the symbol we take so seriously. In this sense, the problem is not that we are too materialistic but that we are not materialistic enough, because we are preoccupied with the symbolism of money. We are infatuated less with the actual things that money can buy than with their power and status–not so much with the comfort and power of an expensive car as with what owning a Maserati sports car says about me. Women buy $10,000 handbags not despite the fact that they are so expensive but because they are so expensive: “I’m the kind of person who owns a Louis Vuitton.”
The basic difficulty with that kind of conspicuous consumption is that we are trying to resolve a spiritual problem–the “emptiness” at the core of one’s being–by grasping at something outside ourselves, which can never confer the sense of reality we crave. We work hard to acquire a big bank account and all the things that society teaches us will make us happy, and then we cannot understand why they do not resolve our sense that something is lacking. Is the reason that we don’t have enough yet?
Another way to make this point is that money too is not a thing but a process. Perhaps it’s best understood as an energy that is not really mine or yours. Those who understand that it is a socially-constructed symbol can use it wisely and compassionately. Those who use it to become more real end up being used by it, their alienated sense of self clutching a blank check — a promissory note that can never be cashed.