It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.
When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.
The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma. It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.
I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment. No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.
It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money. I find money quite boring. I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.
I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills. It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along. I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me. As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:
“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”
I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone? It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?
Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station. At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.
The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence. In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive. House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.
The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher. And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.
I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’. Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality. For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do. In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.
This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis. I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.
I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive. We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’. Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own. Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.
We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals. We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’. We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:
The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.
In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.