Money is rarely just money to us. Beyond being a means of exchange of goods or services, it’s also wrapped up with meaning – written through with stories and symbolism, emotions, hopes, dreams, possibilities and, often, fears.
And the story about money within which each of us lives profoundly shapes our lives, given that it is an inescapable feature of the way human culture has developed.
A few thoughts about what money can be:
- A way of trying to stay safe. If I have enough money, I won’t have any worries any more. Of course, like so many money narratives, there is truth here – a certain amount of money is required to stave off hunger, or to provide a clean, warm, place to live. But how much money is required for safety? Once I’ve taken care of food and shelter, how much is needed to keep me safe from illness, loneliness, absence of meaning, risk of accident, death? Is there ever an amount at which the feeling of the essential, existential riskiness of life is soothed? Can I ever, actually, be safe?
- A source of fear and shame – in which having it is greedy, but not having it is terrifying. In this narrative any move with money is fraught with difficulty, because both accumulating and spending are highly charged activities.
- A way of accessing experiences and opportunities – education, travel, the arts, places to live. There’s no doubt that money can provide entry to many of these, and the absence of money can keep some experiences well out of reach.
- A way of having a certain kind of power in the world – to buy or demand the attention of others, to convince, cajole, reward, threaten or influence others for whom money is an issue.
- A way to bolster self-esteem, or to look good to others. When I have enough money, people will respect me, or love me, or look up to me. When I have enough money I’ll respect myself. A big question in this narrative – how much does it take? And how to deal with comparison – the inevitability that how ever much money I have, there will always be others who have more?
- Like a stream of water flowing in and out and through – in which my responsibility, and opportunity, is not so much to be the one who determines what flows in, but rather the one who determines where to point the flow. What will the stream water today, this week, this year, over a lifetime? Will it collect in a pool, a reservoir, a lake? Will it water just myself, those close to me, or others further away, perhaps even very far away indeed?
- A replacement for belonging, rootedness, home – with money comes the power to liquify what is solid, and to move it elsewhere.
There are of course, so many more stories about money in which we can live – stories that are handed to us by our families, and by our culture. And it’s from the narrative in which we live and act that we assess what is of value, what things cost, what is worth spending on, how much to accumulate, what kind of work we should do and not do, when to stop, when to forge on, how much to trust the world, how afraid to be, what kind of person we can be, how safe we feel, and whether we can rest.
With thanks to Hilary K. who suggested this topic to me some months ago.