Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A little meditation on money, and the fact that some have more of it than others


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:   
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,   
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Philip Larkin

[Note to reader: Please excuse the funny paragraph formatting in what follows. Blogger is acting up again.]

I have some very mixed reactions and thoughts after I first read Larkin's poem. One of my first thoughts was: I don't know what you are talking about, Mr. Larkin. I definitely am not one of those people who have enough money lying around for money to reproach me with letting it lie there wastefully.

But on the other hand, I think Larkin is also right about a few things. He's right that money "clearly... has something to do with life." More accurately, I think it is safe to say that what one does with one's money speaks volumes about the kind of person one is. For instance, it is obvious that "you can’t put off being young until you retire"... and yet I see many people saving furiously for retirement while at the same time neglecting to do the things that they need to do if they are to have a reasonable chance of living long enough to enjoy their retirement when it comes. It is also obvious that you can only "bank your screw" for so long before you get to the point where no amount of money in the world will buy back your ability to screw... but maybe this is not such a big problem these days; after all, when Larkin was writing, there wasn't yet such a thing as Viagra, was there?

Oh wait! Isn't this supposed to be a yoga blog? What is all this talk of screwing doing here? Shouldn't I be talking about, say, Brahmacharya instead? Well, yes, I suppose. So try to forget that I said everything I just said in the last paragraph. But back to Larkin and money. I think there's one really obvious fact that Larkin forgets to mention in his poem: Money is something that some people have (a lot) more of than others. Unless you, uh, have been living under a rock for the last few years, you wouldn't need me to tell you how the economic and political events of the last few years have made this fact all too painfully obvious.

But maybe the obvious doesn't always need to be painful. Maybe, as a society or collective, we will someday get to a point where the fact that some people have a lot more money than others will cease to be a bone of contention and resentment. After all, if I can be happy with what I am (and, by extension, with what I have), why should I care that you have so much more than I of this substance called "money"?

Right now, I'm guessing you are probably thinking that I am being very, very naive (or maybe just very, very high; which I can assure you I'm not; unless, of course, it's possible to get a high from teaching philosophy classes). Well... let me see if I can change your mind. I'll tell you a story, a true story of something that happened to me recently. Last week, at a department meeting, my department chair announced that our college has at its disposal a pretty generous fund that has been donated by some pretty well-to-do alumni (I don't know the full details here, but this is what I gathered it was.). This fund is to be used for "teaching enhancement activities", which could mean a lot of things. But my department chair suggested that inviting some well-known speakers/authors to campus to give talks/book-signings would be a good use of these funds. Sounds good, I thought to myself. So I suggested to everybody at the meeting that we invite this well-known writer who has had a couple of his books made into movies with big-name actors in recent years (I'm not going to tell you who this writer is, but here are a few hints: He's Jewish, lives in New York City, and one of his movies stars Elijah Wood. Do any of this ring any bells?... No, it's not James Altucher. Think harder...). Anyway, everybody present at the meeting thought this was a good idea, so the responsibility fell on me to follow through with this idea and find out the logistical details of what it would take to get this writer to campus (what's his speaking fee, etc, etc.).

After doing a little research, I discovered that he is represented by a big-name speaker agency, and that I would have to call this agency in order to book him for a speaking engagement. So I called the agency yesterday. The guy on the other end of the line--who, I later found out, was actually a vice-president of the agency--was very nice and sounded very enthusiastic, and offered to email me more specific info about this speaker. A few hours later, I called his email. And one of the first things I found out was that to get this writer to campus, we would have to pay him a speaking fee of $25,000 (US dollars, of course) plus first-class expenses (first class airfare, first-class accommodations, first-class everything...). I forwarded the email to my department chair, who promptly replied and informed me that this is a no-go: We would have to spend the entire fund (and more) if we were to get him here! So, no deal. End of story.   

One of my first thoughts upon learning of this writer's hefty speaking fee was: Whoa! Many people don't even make that much in a year. And this guy gets 25K just to go some place and say a few words! The world is a pretty funny place, ain't it? And from here, it would have been all too easy to go down that rabbit hole of resentment/indignation/anger that characterizes so much populist sentiment lately ("Why do the 1% have so much, and the rest just peanuts?! Why is the world so unfair?! Why?!...").

But I think there is a way to not go down that rabbit hole. There is a way to look at the material prosperity of some people without invoking the usual populist sentiments. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance. In fact, I am quite sympathetic to it (see this post). But I also think that resentment/indignation/anger that goes too far often ceases to be a force for good, and becomes a forces that simply breeds more resentment/indignation/anger, to no clear purpose. I think we also see this same pattern of resentment/indignation/anger reproducing itself to no clear purpose in the recent blog-storm over that Equinox Yoga Video... Anyway, at the risk of sounding very reactionary, I would like to suggest that there is a time for pulling back such sentiments, and regarding the same things which may otherwise cause us anger in a different light.

And I suggest that this instance may be one of those times. Here's one way to look at this writer's material prosperity. He is a creative worker, an artist. And through some hard work and a bit of luck, he has gotten himself to a point where through his creative work, he is able to bring joy and meaning into the lives of others, and is also able, at the same time, to draw forth a certain form of material energy into his life (i.e. money). Personally, I would much rather somebody like him enjoy this material affluence than, say, some Wall Street banker (Well, I suppose some may argue that being a successful Wall Street banker is an art form, but whatever... this is for another post). And if somebody like him can enjoy such prosperity through creative work, doesn't this bode well for the rest of us creative souls out there (remember that being a yoga teacher is also a creative endeavor)? Doesn't this suggest that there may just be enough prosperity (and justice) around in the universe for many more that are like him to tap into? Rather than resent him his wealth and prosperity, shouldn't we celebrate it instead? Perhaps the obvious fact that some people happen to have a lot more money than others need not always be a bone of contention and resentment; if nothing else, we must also look at who it is that is having that money.

Have I succeeded in changing your mind?       


  1. Love the post... you had me going there with the its not James... ha ha... still wondering who it is, but that is OK, I understand you not naming directly.

    I completely agree with you Nobel, and now in my words, I believe money is inherently good, it is an energy and when used properly is a great tool, it brings freedom, it brings relaxation and quality of life and frees a person to pursue their own art, or what makes them tick.

    As per the hefty fee, yes I agree as well that he a)deserves it or b) maybe does not want to do it so much so that he puts that fee as a stopper... if it is paid then well, why not? there is value for his time, so, so be it...

    May we all prosper!

    1. Thanks Claudia. I think you made a good point when you said that maybe his fee is so hefty because he doesn't want to just be going everywhere giving talks all the time. Maybe he wants to be sure that his time is really valued when he is invited. Interesting thought.

      May we all live long and prosper [Insert Vulcan salute]. :-)