A few years ago, a colleague recounted a story to me. He was working with the congregation of an American Fijian church. This group was shocked to arrive to the church one morning and there was no electricity, so they asked my friend to help figure out what the problem was. Apparently, they hadn’t paid the power bill for a few months, and of course, you and I both know know (if you’ve ever worked with Those Who Control The Electricity) they have very little appreciation for late payments. “Wow,” the pastor told my friend, dismayed. “In this country, you sure do a lot of things with money. In Fiji we can go weeks without even thinking about money.”
This story has remained in the darker recesses of my mind for years, as I chewed on its meaning. In the island nation of Fiji, the median per capita income is $3500. Is it really so normal that $3500 is a completely liveable annual wage? Most four-person families in the US could hardly survive a month on $3500. How backwards this Fiji story seems to our twisted American minds. How can anyone go weeks without thinking of money?
How do we measure value? By per capita income? Every morning, on my way to work, NPR’s Business Report is playing on the radio. I quite often need to switch the channel, or turn off the radio. The Fijians are right. We measure everything by its dollar value in the U.S. How much does it cost to send a child to school for a year? how much do we pay in taxes? Do I have enough money to retire? When is the mortgage due? Can you go weeks without thinking about money? I can hardly go an innocent half-day without wondering, “Do I have enough in my bank account to cover lunch, or should I use the other account?” or “Can I afford to buy that new book on Saturday?”
I’m not insinuating that money is our god; however, finances colors our day in ways we can’t understand. We’re so used to it, money becomes the background music by which we conduct our routine. Watch the news some evening, and count the number of times things are given a dollar value: earthquake damage. Cost to maintain fire services. Then during the commercials: “Have you been injured in an accident and unable to work? Dewey Cheatem and Howe can help.” Then dinnertime: can we afford to get pizza for the second time in three weeks? I dare you. Try to tally it someday.
There is more to life than money. I’m not saying we should be flippant about our spending. That would lead to personal catastrophe in our culture: loss of house, automobile, status, even job. But you can’t measure a smile in dollars and cents–well, you can if there’s an orthodontics bill to pay. I worked for nearly two years at a coffee shop, where I found myself far happier slinging caffeine, than I was my final years at my previous job. My pay was roughly 50% of my salary as an Assistant Professor, and the hit to my ego was a rather tough, but I was happy for the first time in several years. I came home smelling of roasted beans, grinning stupidly at my wife and boys, ate a meal or two there, and didn’t for a blink consider work. I’m just saying that there are things I wouldn’t trade money for.
Happiness is one of them. In the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible, the Preacher famously made this this observation:
I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Eccl. 2:8-11, New Revised Standard Version)
Now, I’ve heard ministers point out the “delights of the flesh” and the concubines as the reason the preacher found life so unpleasant and vain. This is hardly the case. The Preacher’s answer is this, and the refrain appears several times throughout the book. It’s this simple concept: “I know that there is nothing better for [people] than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (Eccl. 3:12-13, NRSV) I’ve heard people say Ecclesiastes is a downer. It’s not. It’s harsh but optimistic, and a parable for our time.
A musical interlude: Here’s a brief clip from the Bob Fosse production of Cabaret. Liza Minelli and Joel Gray singing “Money (Makes the World Go ‘Round).” It’s exactly the idea I’m writing against, and depending on your interpretation, exactly the concept the song is lampooning. “Taptaptap.” “Who’s there?” “Hunger!” “Ooooh! Hunger!”
Maybe it’s our circumspect Fijian friends, and not money-happy western bankers, who have the real bead on what it is to live one’s life. Would I trade all my money for a few more smiles? Absolutely. Money makes our worldview so narrow that we could peer through a keyhole with both eyes. Join me, and a few hundred thousand pacific Islanders, celebrating life instead of worrying about cash.