Alan Watts likes to ask his students, when doing career counseling, “What would you do if money were no object?” He hopes to get them thinking about what they really enjoy about life, what pursuits they truly want to devote energy toward, and how they want to spend their days. Because after all, “what we do with our days is what we do with our lives.” (Annie Dillard)
On one hand, it is quite important to ask ourselves what we would do if we didn’t need to earn money. When we do that, we tap into the things that drive us to align our actions with our values, we find meaning in the everyday, and we teach our children to do the same. And a society full of people who are doing what they feel called to do is one that is setting itself up for a foundation of peace and vitality. But what happens when we are born into poverty? What happens when we get the short stick every single time because of our gender, our color or our sexual orientation? What happens when the hand we are dealt leaves us scrambling each month to pay the rent? What happens when our soul callings don’t come with a paycheck?
I wish there were easy answers to those questions. Our culture has made quite a mess of myriad things, that goes without saying. We work to pay the bills, and often times that money pads the pockets of corporations that seem fully invested in making sure people need to continue to work jobs they dislike just to survive, not to mention harming the Earth at every step along the way for the sake of the almighty dollar. We buy houses or cars or clothes that we think will make us feel like we matter more, but so often they require us to put in more hours than we would otherwise, and then we can’t enjoy those things that we are working to pay for in the first place. We are single parents trying to make ends meet so the kids can have what they need to fit in, or even to just put food on the dinner table consistently. We are farmers working a second job so the family farm doesn’t get bought out by big Ag. We are students working towards a certain degree just so we can be sure to get a well paying job (..that we’ll hate) at the end of a miserable four years. So many of us feel like we have to work jobs we wouldn’t choose so we can maintain a certain quality of life.
And what happens when we devote most of our energy to making money? We feed the system. We keep conditions ripe for the next generation to do the same. We lose our zest and we find ourselves feeling victimized. We lose focus on giving to those in need because we are trying to either get ahead of the Joneses or make it through the day still standing. It can feel hopeless, especially for those born into a life of want.
In our current cultural story, we need money. It’s that simple – when the average modern human doesn’t have enough money, problems ensue. We know that money doesn’t buy happiness, but we also know that not having enough money (or support from community) for life’s basic necessities leads to suffering. So we need money. In our current cultural story, money IS an object unless we are willing to live in a radically different way.
And I think, friends, that that is the answer. We need to move toward living in ways that feel radically different than we are used to. We need to be in closer community, we need to share, we need to simplify. We need to act from the wells of the soul, and the wells of the soul never say “do it for the money.”
So what WOULD you do if money weren’t an object? Even though this very moment might require it, when we can start thinking about how life would be different when not driven by money we are that much closer to acting in ways that allow such a society come into being.