Fighting over Money

Have you noticed that most fights involve triangles—two people or groups and a sticky issue? The sticky issue is often money. Couples, even countries, fight over you, me, and money.

I tell people that triangulation is strangulation. Between two individuals, interactions are simple: you to me, and me to you. Just two things are happening. But add a third party to the transaction—in this case, an "it"—and there are ten things happening at once—five times as much as with two parties. It’s like jumping onto a fast-moving merry-go-round. Instantly, everything becomes a blur.

Money is a trap that we can’t live without. Despite protests against materialism and wealth, it is impossible in today’s world to ignore money. Even if you decide to live in a cave in the backwoods, you have to buy or rent the property or know someone with means who is willing to be your benefactor. Ethical living requires dealing with money. Bartering for what we need is scarcely a real option any more.

What money does to our transactions is twofold. First, it makes exchange easier. Things are given monetary value that is objective, negotiable, and easy to understand. Many fights over money are attempts to restore money as a measurement of value. (For instance, compulsive spenders lose sight of this and will buy a $1,000 item as if it’s not any more valuable than a $100 item.) And second, money as income occasions the flow of money that makes modern social life possible. Economist David Ciscel [see his article on p. 23 —eds.] says that the love of money is the love of money as income. We fight over the desire for more income.

How is it possible to reap the benefits of money without fighting over it? Or, put differently: How can we live in a society where money is the primary measurement of security without feeling insecure about how much money or income we have? And more directly to the point of our daily lives: How can a couple stop fighting over money?

Money is central to our hopes for harmony because it appears, on the surface, to be a means for minimizing conflict. We try to get more money so that peace can prevail. We often think that we can throw money at a conflict, and it will go away. Experience tells us something different, though: money is surrounded by avarice, greed, jealously, and gluttony. Money and wealth can create new conflicts, sometimes even escalating the old ones rather than solving them.

It’s also tempting sometimes to claim that we’d be better off without money. If we view money as the source of a conflict, then rising above money should resolve the conflict. Thus, we often are fooled into thinking that peace depends on not needing money.

Both of these approaches assume that peace depends on not needing more money. Either you don’t need it because you have enough of it already, or you learn to transcend money and live with very little of it (we sometimes label this simplicity). From this it appears that only the wealthy or those who take a vow of poverty can be peaceful. The rest of us, those who live between wealth and poverty, fight.

But of course this is not true. In fact, there are just as many feuds among the wealthy and among religious communities that believe in transcending the material world as there are for everyone else. The wealthiest and simplest can be just as dissatisfied as those of average means. Furthermore, if you want to cause a major marital fight, just give a couple a whole lot of money—or take away just enough money to force the pair to simplify their lives. Money and the lack of money are both great sources of fighting. Peace, it appears, is not created by making people wealthy or cutting incomes. Peace depends on something else.

What, really, is money? If it were just a medium of exchange, then it would be neutral in our quest for peace. But money is much more than that. It is symbolic of something beyond production, market value, and net worth. Money is really about feeling nurtured, valued, secure, and free. This is the first clue towards understanding the relationship between money and peace.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman, author of Money and Meaning, sheds light on what money is about. He suggests that there are two sets of concerns in our lives. One is secondary, the other is primary. Secondary concerns are about our basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, retirement, and the like—the external life. Money is involved in almost all secondary concerns. Primary concerns are about love and meaning—the interior life. Money is a great liberating factor in enabling us to focus on our primary concerns. In other words, when we manage money well we become free to focus on what really matters—on that which makes humans different from other animals. In contrast, when we don’t manage money well we elevate secondary concerns above what really matters, which creates the conflict we strive to transcend.

Peace, I believe, is more than the absence of conflict. Peace must go beyond the conflicts that destroy, while paradoxically embracing another kind of conflict—the craving for transcendence, for what is truly excellent and sublime.

For example, Phillip Haley, author of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, was researching Nazi cruelty, trying to understand how otherwise good people could engage in torturous medical experiments on Jewish children. He discovered an article about Le Chambon, a town in France that became a haven of nonviolent protection from Nazi deportation of Jews. Reading about this oasis of morality in those dark times, he felt a strange sensation on his cheek. He found himself wiping away a tear. He immediately chastised himself for losing his sense of objectivity and went home disgusted with himself. But later he felt that tear again and returned that night to his office to reread about Le Chambon’s courage. It was then that he realized that just as some people numbed themselves from disgust in order to continue their objective but horrible experiments, he was seeking to numb himself from excellence and the sublime. He wrote that sometimes excellence is like a spear into our hearts; or, as I would say it: sometimes the light of transcendence breaks into our darkened souls. Haley moved beyond focusing on the conflict of Nazi cruelty to sensing with awe the conflict inherent in the encounter.

Once a woman who struggled with despair and its companion, cynicism, said that she so missed some wonderful bread she used to enjoy in Europe that she would cry over it. She moaned, "Why do I have to remember such things? They only hurt me." Her companion asked her, "Would you rather stay cynical and despairing?" She replied with tears, "No, it’s just that something that good comes along so rarely that I ache for more of it." That ache is the conflict inherent in peace. A cynic might reply, "If you make enough money you can fly back to Europe for some of that bread." But a more insightful comment on that craving is that we all might be missing the in-breaking of transcendence in our daily lives, in the midst of all of the mediocrity surrounding us.

Dorothee Soelle, author of The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, suggests that we erroneously think that the only true mystics are those who experience great mystical experiences. Instead, she says that we fail to recognize the many, many mystical moments in our daily lives that, strung together and named for what they are, can define us in new and transforming ways. I experienced this as I walked to work recently. On the way I saw four or five sassafras trees manicured in a way I had never seen before. They were beautiful. I stopped with mouth agape to look at them. Wow! It was, I believe, a mystical moment.

Then, only a few blocks later, I suddenly became aware of how relaxed I had become. It felt great. Another mystical moment—two of them just a few blocks apart! By resisting my habit of driving to work, I had stepped out of my mediocre world, out of the mainstream, and had been blessed by the in-breaking of light.

This is exactly what I understand to be the meaning of Christmas. In the middle of the darkest and coldest time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) God offered Light for the world. Of course, Jesus was probably not born in December, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the myth. Transcendence happens even during times of darkness.

The money trap is not really about exchange or about goods. It is a trap of darkness. It is the trap of elevating secondary concerns above what needs to be primary. We cannot—we should not—ignore or neglect secondary concerns; that’s the best way to elevate them into first place. What we have to do is treat secondary concerns with great respect and self-discipline, and in the middle of those mundane matters, resist the urge to ignore the in-breaking of transcendence. We must look for, name, and enjoy the mystical moments that are right there, freely given.

Back to the leading question: How can we stop fighting over money? The answer is paradoxical: Treat money with more importance and it will be less important. It’s the same way with food and fat: eat more deliberately (slowly) and you’ll eat less, enjoy it more to not get fat.

In the mid-1990s I had extra money for the first time in my life, and I invested in the stock market. Like other investment "geniuses," I bought into a couple of mutual funds and watched my money grow rapidly. Fascinated at my growing wealth, I began to spend a lot of energy tracking earnings and predicting when I might become a millionaire. I found myself feeling like a miser. I didn’t want to spend anything; I just wanted to amass wealth. One day, fortunately, I got sick of it—or, rather, I realized that I was sick with it. I kept saving a reasonable amount of money, but I stopped watching the pot. (Just in time, too, for when the market crashed in 2001 I was no longer drooling over becoming a millionaire investor and didn’t jump off a building.) It took me a few years to distance myself from money management addiction, but when I did, I could see a way for couples to stop fighting over money.

It was simple—so simple I almost feel foolish putting it into words. Couples can embrace a difficult, tight budget. The way out of fighting over money is the hard way. There is no easy way. You just have to not buy as much, try to earn a little more, and be patient. The patience part is the key. Patience is paradox’s best friend. Paradoxically, if you patiently live by an austere budget, you’ll get to spend freely later. Money, though, is a great tempter. It seduces us into thinking that there is an easy way—a conflict-free way—to happiness. No, happiness is difficult to achieve. There is no resurrection without bearing the cross. To stop fighting over money, we have to bear the burden of a disciplined financial life. It’s the hard way to go, but it’s a way out of the fight.

There’s another paradox to embrace. It is this: If we treat money as not all ours, it will become ours. This means that it is important that we begin our austere budget with a donation. Some recommend tithing. The amount matters, but not as much as what a donation symbolizes. By beginning our focus on money management with a donation, we are symbolically admitting that money doesn’t really belong to us. All that really belongs to us is love and meaning—our primary concerns. Money, which is a secondary concern, is ultimately irrelevant. It’s not really ours anyway. It’s the community’s. Money is actually owned by society, not you or me. Collectively we own money, not individually.

When a couple decides that this is our money, when they begin their budgeting with a donation, when they embrace patient austerity, they break out of the ongoing fight over money. They don’t, however, end conflict, but they find peace in a different kind of conflict—they squarely face money’s seductive lure and live with self-discipline.

Furthermore, if we as citizens embrace the communal nature of money—that it’s ours together and needs to be shared—and seek to spend conservatively, making up the needed difference with determination to share the workload (rather than blame and fight), we pull out of financial jams.

Common sense tells us this, and yet common sense also tells us that this approach, by itself, is utopian and unrealistic. Religion can make it realistic.

Religion is the naming of and making sense of spiritual experiences. If we would acknowledge the in-breaking of transcendence in our daily lives—those many simple, mystical moments when we inwardly exclaim, "Wow!"—we break out of the realm of power struggles, triangulation, and political blaming into the realm or reign of God. Religion is about our urge to transcend, to resist being swallowed up in the struggles inherent in life. Religion is the invitation to look upward without denying what we’re standing on. It is the realization that money matters, but only as a diving board into the ocean of God’s care.

Religion changes our perspective, making us cry over excellence and the sublime and compassion rather than conflicts about what we don’t have. If all we’ve got is money, or if all we focus on is money, we don’t have much. With God we have enough.

Money is worth fighting over, but the fight needs to be between you and money, not between you and your partner and money. The fight needs to be about making sure that money is treated with respect, spent with great self-discipline, earned with great care, given away with great detachment, and transcended with awe for the gifts inherent in life itself.

From this perspective, money can teach us that peace can include conflict if we fight in twos, not threes. Peace is achieved, I believe, by developing the ability to confront problems without triangulation. We can stop fighting over money when we embrace money’s basic simplicity and creative power while simultaneously facing its destructive lure with courage and self-discipline. Thus, rather than trying so hard to get more money or to live with less and less money, we learn to respect money, even befriend it. And therein lies the answer: if you befriend your enemy, you destroy the enemy. Money as a friend is no longer an enemy.

Ron McDonald

Ron McDonald, a member of Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting, is a pastoral counselor and the author of a new book, The Spirituality of Community Life: When We Come 'Round Right.

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