I’ve been thinking about money and wealth recently.
To start with two of the most obvious facts you’re ever likely to stumble across: We all die, and we can’t take our money with us. Okay, we all know that, but what does it mean for how we live our lives?
What purpose is there to our lives? Yeah, I know philosophers have been debating that one since dot, but you know what - it might not actually be that complicated. Seems to me that there are two imperatives driving purpose in our lives. First off, you’ve got the biological imperative. What’s that? Well, basically, you want to pass your genes on. Make babies. It doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. Some people get along very happily without going forth with multiplication. But the ever-increasing global population is a good indicator that the urge to pass on our genetic material is fundamental to the human condition. In biological terms, that is our purpose.
Biology isn’t everything, though. What about the moral imperative? (Now, I could be a bit of a smart-arse here and argue that the only reason we can put the notion of a moral imperative on the table is because we’ve evolved that way… so, at root, morality is an issue of biology. But that’s a story for a different day.) It looks like the moral imperative (in other words, what we think we should do) is the only other realm of purpose outside of biology. I know this might read as though I’m rambling, but trust me; it’s going somewhere.
The moral imperative can be thought of as needing to do the right thing: To do good. In the main, we all like to think we’re good people, and that we’re trying to do good things. (The exception - when people actually start to think of themselves as not good, or worthless - is a symptom of mental ill health. Not relevant for this particular discussion.) Philosophers can argue about what good actually means, but for now, all we need to understand is that, in the main, we want to be good.
In consideration of this moral imperative, and understanding that we’re all going to die and we can’t take the bank balance with us, what does it all mean? Should we, in fact, use our money to do good?
Speaking as someone born and raised in a capitalist society (and I’ll almost certainly die in the same), I can tell you money is pretty important to me. I’m no hunter-gatherer, much less a farmer. If the money stops rolling in, so does the food. But not just the food… I prefer my Netflix on the largest widescreen I can fit in my house. I like having the most powerful laptop I can get my hands on. But there does come a point at which these kind of desires stop. This hit me quite hard when I realised we actually have one TV too many in the house. Seriously. What was I wasting my money on?
An old joke that did the rounds on Facebook not too long ago goes like this: Money can't make you happy, but it’s a lot more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than on a bike. This is where we say LOL.
It might be a bit lame, because it’s already been said in so many ways by so many people, but do we actually need the bigger house, the faster car, the more powerful laptop, the wider widescreen? Do we?
For some people, money - lots of it - becomes a burden. What to do with it? Or it can become an obsession. Am I the only person who looks at some of the filthy rich gazillionaires around the world who are trying to accrue even more wealth, and thinks Why? I doubt it. In all seriousness, if I won one of those lottery mega-rollovers, I’d give most of it away (carefully, and with much thought).
Even people with only a modest amount of, or even very little, wealth can get obsessed with it. I get tired of hearing about absent or estranged fathers who either drag their feet with maintenance, or refuse to pay it altogether. It’s particularly annoying when you put it in the context of the biological imperative. Biologically, we just want to pass it all on to the next generation. But it appears to be a peculiarity of money and wealth that a lot of people (not everyone, I know) are driven to accumulate increasing amounts of wealth, to spend on transient pleasures that can never - ever - have the permanence of biological reproduction, and not share it with their own offspring. What is the point of that?
It’s pretty ambitious to try and sum up the purpose of human existence in a short blog post like this, but hey - you only live once (which is kinda the point), so I’m going to try.
To hammer home point one: Biologically, our purpose is to pass on our genes. By extension, this means not only completing the reproductive act, but doing it well, and protecting the genetic investment (being a good parent).
To progress point two a little: It could well be that the only good use for wealth is to ensure our genes are passed on in the safest and most efficient way possible (being a generous parent).
Point one and point two might just well combine to tell us that the success of an individual’s life; it’s value and purpose, can be most meaningfully expressed as an inverse ratio to that individual’s obsession with accumulating and holding on to wealth.
My late mother, for most of her life, had very little money. In her later years, she was more financially secure. But she was relentlessly generous and supportive with her offspring, and indeed her grandchildren. She had it right. The money didn’t matter to her; what she wanted, and what she gave, much more even than the money she so regularly and effortlessly parted with, was love. Her commitment to being a good, loving parent left no room in her heart for obsession with money.
Be good, people. To yourselves and your children.
© Darren R. Scothern