You Get What You Pay For

Posted on July 27, 2011

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A friend today wrote a piece that served as a flash point for thoughts that have been coalescing in my mind for some time. I appreciated his insights, carefully offered as a professor in a respected business program of a major university. I have my own to add as well.

With a long history of ambivalence toward money, I’ve had to come to terms with the good it can do. I now see that there’s nothing particularly purifying about poverty in and of itself, and there’s no guarantee that an abundance of affluence is an assurance of annihilation. The business world, trading in all that filthy lucre, is what creates comfort for the citizens of this planet, and the better-managed and widely varied that world is, the more free people are to do good, create beauty, and choose better. Wealth used to improve is honorable. Almost any work can be honorable.

I still, however, find myself frantically peeling it off of me, like Harry Potter swimming desperately up from the murky lair of the grindylows. Like debt, wealth is a tireless taskmaster. Like adulation, it’s a poison.

My own work of late has made this so much more clear. In what likely seemed a crazy, thoughtless surrender, at the close of last year I chose to leave a job I hated rather than keep it and move to Montana or commute for three hours daily. We sat down as a family and talked about what was most important, and we all felt that we belonged right where we are. Next we talked about the consequences of a variety of choices. When we’d all said what we felt, it hung there as obvious. We would go forward with absolutely no idea what we would do.

I withdrew my meager 401k and began building my dream. I’m given anymore to a lot more conversation with the heavens than in my youth, and I’ve restructured several times in the interim based on observations offered therein. Most importantly, I’ve spent some time doing what I love best and value most: mothering my kids and being their friend and counselor, planting grass and flowers, being a grandmother, and reading books. Unlike any other period of my life, I’ve been free to explore Walden Pond.

Far from a vacation, it’s been a PhD in everything. I cannot describe the worth of it. Far more than my 401k.

Out of this time some insights particular to me and my life’s work have distilled. I will probably never own my own home again. It isn’t necessary to own something to work to improve it. There are more important things than equity in stone and dirt and glass – for instance, the way I can serve the paper owner or my neighbors or my community. And when those stewardships are complete, I will be free to go … wherever … and it seems likely that I will be going a lot. There is something very grounding about surrendering to the proximity of homelessness, of recognizing the sustaining strength of higher powers that clothe lilies and house sparrows. There are other things to build, other more real estate.

I’m the first to recognize that my choices and outlook are extreme. I would never suggest them for someone else, nor demean a steady job and a solid home. Somewhere in there, however, I think there are some universal truths. Like dark matter lurking in the apparently empty spaces between particles of tangible matter, what we build that lasts is equally invisible, and equally weighty.

What is to be your legacy? Why will your life have mattered? How does that affect your decisions today?

As I read the New Testament I’m struck with the transformation the apostles underwent after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were concerned with trappings of leadership, fear of reprisals, weakness, and their own insufficiency before. Afterward, they were free, … and exponentially more powerful. They were otherworldly. They made daily decisions based on different principles than they had previously. Paul says in his list of some of the most powerful people to walk the earth (Hebrews 11), that Abraham lived in a tent on borrowed land while “he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Are we looking, or are we distracted by more apparently tangible things?

I’m also struck in my latest study of the bible with the reason it’s foretold that nations and people would be destroyed. Their willful ignorance of the poor. Over and over the willingness to amass to themselves great fortunes at the expense of each other, utilizing “unjust weights” and charging “usury” – in other words, unethical business practices – were the single most common reason given for denouncing their worthiness for blessings. There is no discussion of “worthy poor” – just that any who would deny the beggar or the man wounded on the road to Jericho was worse than infidel.

Worse than an unbeliever. Worse than a gross sinner. Both deny one access to God. All for the want of money.

Money is never a reason to make a decision. When we determine whether or not we can afford something, every other factor besides our budget should come first. Can we afford what it will do to our family to buy this thing? Can we afford what it will do to our life? Can we afford what it will do to someone else? If we are supposed to embark on a quest and the budget doesn’t support it, the means will be there, if other virtues are served by so doing. We’ve found this to be so in our life, many times over.

Nothing comes without sacrifice. In our world we declare the value of an object, or a principle, by how much money we sacrifice to get it. You get what you pay for. Buy something that lasts.

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