By Doni Joszef
Money does funny things to people. It sustains us, yet it drains us. It keeps families alive, yet it tears families apart. It attracts honor and respect, yet it tends to distract us from what’s truly honorable and respectable in life.
As Freud put it: “It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement—that they seek power, success, and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.”
For much of my life I observed this phenomenon as a spectator; I saw it as an outsider looking into a world of materialism and wealth. My youthful cynicism could mock the so-called “rat race,” conveniently neglecting to acknowledge my own materialistic impulse, which was seamlessly quenched by my eager-to-please parents.
For better or worse, this has gradually changed. I’ve grown up. I’ve become an adult. And with adulthood comes the adult activity of money-chasing. It’s a mind-shift; nothing changes, and yet everything changes. Mind-shifts are like that.
Life is interesting. We start out chasing toys. Then we chase popularity. Eventually we chase marriage. Soon after, we chase cute families and impressive jobs. At some point along the way, we begin chasing money. The chase takes on a life of its own. Money is no longer a means to an ends; it becomes an ends in and of itself. The race is on, and it’s a race with no finish line. As we run, we begin to compete with fellow racers.
Who’s dashing ahead? Who’s lagging behind? What does he do (=How much does he make)? Who’s buying a house? Where are they buying it? And who’s secretly helping them afford it? Is their money self-made or parent-provided? Are they spending more than they have, or do they have more than they’re spending?
These are questions we don’t always share publicly, but they simmer silently in our minds, surfacing sporadically for the sake of table talk. If we can pin a price tag on peoples’ personalities, we somehow feel complete in our assessments of their character. It sounds so shallow and pathetic; and yet it’s so common we can’t help but wonder how and why we’ve become so infatuated with money.
I don’t think this is a new phenomenon. Humans have always fantasized about wealth, success, prominence, and stature. “If I were a rich man . . .” is a timeless anthem.
The chase for money becomes a pervasive Pandora’s box, and even the rich man finds himself singing “If I were a richer man . . .” It’s been said that capitalism is great for the whole of civilization, but terrible for its individual civilians. The race for money is what builds society, squeezing every last ounce of juice out of humanity’s creative potential. But this same race is what breaks our deeper convictions and cripples our communal values.
If I were a rich man, I’d want to be a richer man. Money is like that. The illusion of wealth-induced wellbeing is a universal one. We all want it, we all chase it, and no matter how empty we know the dream is, there’s something inside us which invariably fantasizes about the good life and the fruits of freedom it appears to produce.
But by seeing it as an illusion, we free ourselves from the grips of its seduction. By pausing our perpetual pursuit, we pull the plug on its persuasive parade. By calling its bluff, we avoid biting its bate.
Indeed, the sages knew what they were talking about; wealth is about wanting all we have rather than having all we want. While the latter leads us down a never-ending chase, the former leads us to a place of gratitude and inner contentment. We go from a race with no finish line to a finish line with no race.
It’s a mind-shift; nothing changes, and yet everything changes. Mind-shifts are like that. v
Doni Joszef, LMSW, works in private practice with adolescents and young adults in Lawrence. He blogs at DeficitOfAttention.com and is pursuing a Ph.D. in media psychology. For more information, call 516-316-2247 or visit DoniJoszef.Com.