How something we need so much can matter so little
by Gerry Bowler
Lately it is been hard to escape the consequences of the current financial catastrophe that is wrecking the global economy. Tear-soaked telethons raising money to pay off the credit card debts of Paris Hilton and other socialite heiresses now crowd the airwaves.
Who among us has not been touched by the plight of Wall Street magnates compelled by cruel circumstance to dry-dock their yachts, lay off their polo coaches and repossess the jewels they once showered on their Brazilian mistresses or been deeply moved by the sight of a wretched hedge fund manager freezing in a refrigerator carton under the bridge?
And yet in some ways I welcome the coming of mass misery and poverty.
Like many Baby Boomers I was raised by parents who survived the Dirty Thirties and the Great Depression: stories of breadlines, soup kitchens, the March on Ottawa by thousands of jobless men, and prairie skies darkened by locust swarms and dust storms were as mother’s milk to me. I endured countless lectures on thrift, horror stories about children who had to walk to school (no buses or obliging parental drivers for these oppressed mites), and the virtues of saving versus the vice of spending.
One lesson was crystal clear: poverty breeds good character; money makes you self-indulgent and careless. And if I forgot that for a second, I was made to watch the Walt Disney cartoon about the industrious ant who prospered and the consumerist grasshopper who sang “The World Owes Me a Living,” but who froze to death when winter came.
Now, decades later, when financial disaster has hit my generation, I have, at last, a chance at developing that good character that was denied me by a comfortable childhood. I eagerly await the hardships that will turn into soul-building anecdotes to bore my future grandchildren.
Money is over-rated
The truth, though, is that money is over-rated both in its absence and its abundance. We all know poor folk who have the characters of alley rats and well-off people who are model citizens. The question is not how much money we have but what we do with it. Few of us are likely to say that we don’t need more money in our lives. After all, we are men with mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, kids’ sports equipment or music lessons to pay for and a car or two that need filling with gas. And then there are our toys.
Like most men, I love toys. As males grow older we do not abandon playthings; the objects of our interest simply get more expensive. We leave bicycles and skateboards behind and focus our attention on the manly joys of sports cars and SUVs— at some superficial, politically-correct level we may condemn the gas-guzzling, carbon spewing Hummers, but deep down our hearts beat faster and our testosterone surges at the thought of climbing into one of those massive babies and crushing slow moving cyclists and pesky squeegee kids beneath our 18-inch off-road tires on the polished alloy wheels.
We dare not venture forth into the world without charging our cell phones, digital cameras and iPods. Our cars have been remotely started; our seats are electronically warmed; the warm female voice of our talking GPS system guides us to our destination. We know that Bluetooth is not a pirate. Our high-definition televisions have screens measured in yards, not inches, and the sub-woofers in our home theatre systems emit bass notes so low that sperm whales run themselves aground on the B.C. coast. We have boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, motorcycles and personal watercraft. The faster a toy goes with the more danger to ourselves, the better we like it.
I must not forget those, like myself, who are addicted to perpetually upgrading their computer array, who possess laptops and desktops, scanners, printers, external storage devices and a USB launcher that fires Nerf missiles at those who interrupt our fun. Some of us golf against Tiger Woods on our X-Box, simulate a Guitar Hero on our PlayStation or go bowling on our Wii.
And those are only the useful things. What about the money we’ve spent on talking beer bottle openers or mounted fish that sing “Don’t Worry Be Happy”?
What money can’t buy
The problem with possessions though, is that sooner or later they end up owning us more than we own them. We spend money to upgrade and insure them; we spend time to maintain them; and we spend anxiety lest our playthings be lost, stolen or scratched. We find that while money can buy us momentary distraction, it can’t buy us anything approaching satisfaction.
The list of things that money can’t buy is instructive. You will find, for example, that your dog is unimpressed by the size of your bank account. He would far rather tussle with you for possession of a slobbery tennis ball than a wad of hundred dollar bills. He wants you to rub his stomach, not send him for a pedicure at a high-end spa. (This is not true of your cat. Cats do care about your credit balance and will not eat the cheap tuna fish you offer them. That’s why real men are not cat people.)
Money can’t buy a good woman— in fact, that’s one of the definitions of a good woman—and it certainly can’t buy anything as precious as the respect of your kids. Children very soon stop listening to us but they never stop watching us. They are keener observers than the Hubble Space Telescope, which can peer billions of light years into space but cannot, as your child can, detect hypocrisy and shallow values at a glance.
We know all this, instinctively or through bitter experience, and yet we continue to chase money as if it were something that really mattered. We make unhealthy choices to get more of it; we deprive our family of our presence in chase of it; we view ourselves as lesser men, somehow, if we don’t have as much of it as our neighbours. And therein lies men’s biggest problem with money: we use it to keep score.
Males, by nature, are active and competitive creatures and we constantly strive to measure our accomplishments and ourselves. But society no longer requires very many hunters or warriors. Unlike our ancestors of less civilized times, we can’t gauge our value by the number of enemies dead at our feet or mastodon carcasses dragged back to the home cave.
So we turn to money and the things we can buy that show those around us that we have money. Because money is a good thing (when we use it to provide for our family or give to charity or invest for the future) we fall into the trap of thinking that more of it must be better and that a man who has more of it must be a better man.
To escape from this trap and the false image of ourselves it gives us, we have to remember that this is not how we are really measured by those that love us: our wives, our kids, our dogs and our God. They want our time, our focused attention and our devotion. In return we get love and real happiness. None of that is taxable or subject to loss when the stock market declines.
Gerry Bowler, a world-renowned authority on Santa Claus and all things Christmas, teaches History at the University of Manitoba.
The article above was featured in the January 2009 issue of SEVEN magazine.