If you ask almost anyone what is most important to them in life you will hear answers like, “my family, my community, my friends, my church, my health, making my community a better place…”. But yet if you look at the way these same people spend their time, or listen to their thought processes when making a decision, often money will appear much more important than what they told you earlier.
Money and our emotions around it are incredibly complicated. Many of us see it as evil, and when looking at the impact of unfettered capitalism, this conclusion is understandable. Yet, we also crave more of it – more money can open doors to us that seem impossible to open without it. But wanting too much of it makes us appear greedy which is associated with being bad. No one wants to be thought of as bad. Yet, in our current system, money is very useful in order to acquire many basic life necessities- food, housing, healthcare etc. Because of all of this, it is difficult to imagine what a “healthy relationship to money” might even look like!
Private versus Public Healthcare and Corruption
Several months ago, I was on the farm, became feverishly sick and didn’t know what was wrong. Angola has both private and public healthcare. I find the stark contrast between the two confounding. When I first started showing signs of being ill, Claudio was not aware that there is private healthcare in Uige, the town closest to the farm. He was adamant that he wouldn’t allow me to use the public healthcare system, as he feared it would make me sicker, not better. If I needed healthcare, we would need to drive to Luanda (8 hours away), where I could access private healthcare and get the quality of care he thought I needed. I didn’t want to go to the public hospital, but I also felt too sick to sit in the car for 8 hours. Fortunately, we found out that there is a reputable private clinic in town. We went there, whipped out a credit card, and zab a dab a doo, I was treated with respect, got a diagnosis, treatment plan and within days, I felt nearly good as new. Easy peasy.
What would have happened if we didn’t have access to this clinic? What would my experience at the public hospital have been like? I’ve heard stories about the public hospital in Uige. Long wait times, unhygienic conditions, rude staff. But worst of all, I’ve heard that the medications that the government or international donors provide to the hospital are often stolen by corrupt staff and sold for profit at nearby private pharmacies. A patient at the public hospital may receive a paper prescription and be told, “This is what you need to get better, but we are out of stock. Go buy it at the nearby private pharmacy, bring it back here, and then we will treat you.” If the patient can afford to, they will go to a private pharmacy, purchase the very medications that were donated for the good of citizens, and then go back for treatment. If they can not afford to purchase the necessary medications…. they will not receive treatment.
There is a part of me who demonizes the corrupt staff who would do such a thing. I wonder what they do with that money that is so important that they are willing to risk human lives for it. I wonder how they even rationalize this to themselves? But there is another part of me that steps back and asks, “Am I so different?” “In what myriad of ways do I do something similar?” “When have I rationalized my comfortable living standard while I know others are barely surviving?” “How do I rationalize wasteful or potentially exploitative spending?” “What do I do in order to make money, which does not directly contribute to the well being of my community?”
Rationalizing our money story
Healthcare is just one example of the myriad ways that the profit motive has distorted rewards so that people do things that would otherwise be illogical for a functioning human who desires to live on a healthy planet in right relationship with other living beings. Obvious things like mining fossil fuels, clearcutting forests, poaching rhinos, exploiting people for labor, trafficking in humans… I could go on and on. We all know deep down that these things make sense only in a world in which doing something for the sole reason of “making money” makes sense. We all know when we hear about something like this that there is something very very wrong with our profit motives. We may ask, “How could someone be so greedy that they would kill a rhino in order to turn a profit?” But again, I believe it is also important to ask, “How different am I, honestly?”
When I was in the US recently, one of the major focusses of my time was establishing a secure income stream for myself. It has been a truly fascinating journey. My own attitude towards earning money has shifted a great deal. There was the initial moment of feeling great urgency and feeling that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if I stepped away from my values just a bit in order to bring in more money so I can be more independent. I was able to construct a whole story justifying this to myself. Now, I am feeling like I still have no idea how I’m going to bring in sufficient money to be more independent in my unique lifestyle, but somehow feeling confident and relaxed at the same time, and trusting that somehow I will be provided for. In between, I constructed a range of other stories and I’m sure that my stories are continuing to evolve and will be different by next week sometime.
I also talked to numerous solopreneurs about their approach to business – many who share an anti-oppression lens. I have been fascinated to notice how each of us justifies our business model, our hourly rate, our income. Each one confidently explained to me, “The more money I have, the more money I can redirect to good causes.” or “I can’t bring my good work into the world if I can’t survive off of the money that my good work brings in.” or “There are plenty of less competent white men making a crapload more money than I am. Don’t I also have a right to make a crapload of money?” and on and on. I am not judging any of these rationalizations. I’m just naming them as rationalizations. Rationalizations the same as rhino poachers also have a story they tell themselves about their work. The same as the public health care workers in Angola who steal medicine for resale in a private pharmacy. We have all created a story to justify our actions. To believe that what you are doing is oppressive, but to continue to do it is too uncomfortable. We create stories for our own comfort.
Money is incredibly complicated. It feels tied to our survival, and so carries all sorts of traumatic emotional baggage. Thus, we have to come up with a story that justifies our approach to it. As I was navigating these murky waters of my own story to money, it finally hit me. No matter what story I choose to identify with, it is just that. A story. Just like everyone else’s story. My story is no more correct or incorrect than anyone else. Just a story that makes me feel comfortable. And it will surely shift with time. Now when someone tells me confidently about their story of money, I listen respectfully but recognize that even if it is presented as a solid textbook fact, it is equally a story, like all textbook facts.
Now when a prospective client asks about my rates, I will give them a blank stare and ask them how to value a rhino. My pricing is just a story. It doesn’t tell a story about how I value myself, or about how you value my work. It tells a story about a very complicated society that we live in, which values things in the most complicated and seemingly irrational ways. But somehow, we claim they make sense. Because we like believing we are rational beings. And we do not like the discomfort of living in contradiction with our values.