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The Man Who Quit Money: Interview with Book Club Author

Over a decade ago, a man named Daniel Suelo decided to live without money. He had wrestled under its tyranny for years and often felt more satisfied in the jobs he did for free rather than the ones where he earned a paycheck. He closely observed that the people with more money gave less, while people with less tended to give more. For Suelo, money became a symbol for much of what was wrong in the world. In order to grow spiritually, he decided he had to give it up for good.

Suelo doesn’t have a house. Instead, he lives in the caves of Moab, Utah and travels frequently throughout the country by hitchhiking or getting rides with friends. He uses a donated bike to get to his local library, where he keeps an active blog (“Moneyless World”) and Facebook account. He gets plenty of exercise and forages enough food from local vegetation and supermarket dumpsters to last him weeks. Instead of worrying about financial security and the future, he focuses on what he needs in the present moment. When problems arise, Suelo relies on his faith and the generosity of people around him to get him through.

According to Mark Sundeen, the author of The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead Trade, 2012), Daniel Suelo loves to write, but refuses to make money from his gift. That’s why he agreed to let Sundeen follow him around for a year, recording hours of interviews that he later transcribed into 110 single-spaced pages of type. Still, Suelo is happy to travel from town to town discussing what he believes: money is an illusion and a creed that takes us away from the things in our lives that truly matter.

In the FJ book club interview, Mark Sundeen talks about Suelo’s philosophy of money, why writing this book changed him, and how to cultivate simplicity in our daily lives.

Daniel seems to live a solitary lifestyle. He lives by himself, scrounges food from nature and dumpsters, and exists on the periphery of society. Yet from reading his blog and his story, it appears that he has more friends than most people. Did you find that surprising?

A most common misperception is that Daniel is a hermit, which is what a lot of people assume when they comment on his blog. But Daniel thinks we’re supposed to be interdependent on one another, and he doesn’t want to have to pretend he’s not. By having nothing, he forces himself to be dependent on others, and it allows others to give freely from the heart. America has this myth of the rugged individualist—we feel shame when we get something for free—but we’re all in this together.

Daniel said that when he was using money, so many of his relationships felt like they were based on commerce and transaction. He feels that now his relationships are more authentic: no one’s being paid to hang out with him. He did lose a few friends from his church, but most of his friendships are still strong.

Daniel grew up in a fundamentalist household and broke away from that religion. What has been the reception of fundamentalists to Daniel’s story?

Fundamentalists say you have to believe in Jesus to go to Heaven, but Daniel cites Jesus’s teaching that the kingdom of Heaven is within us. Daniel tells them they’ve misinterpreted the teachings of Jesus. Active fundamentalists basically think he’s a heretic.

What kind of people are reading the book and showing up on book tour?  

Demographically, 60 is the average age for people who come out, because they’re the type of people who read books. We expected some Occupy anarchists at our readings, but there were almost none. Every once in a while there will be some comments online from Christians who say they resonate with his story, but most of the people who come to the readings are secular, liberal, environmentalist-types. It’s amazing how many say they grew up fundamentalist and then became Buddhists or Quakers.

On book tour, Daniel and I kept talking about how surprised we were that so many people were thinking about this intersection of spirituality and money. He always thought he was crazy, but other people have said they’ve felt this their whole lives. A lot of Catholics talked about how when they were young, they wanted to work for the poor, but then drifted, and this book helped them remember this feeling of joyous charity.

I’m curious about Daniel’s opinion on politics. Does he feel like he’s beyond politics, or does he want to be active in politics?

He has been involved with local politics in Moab; he wanted the city council to pass a resolution that corporations were not citizens. He tried to vote in the last election with an absentee ballot, but it got lost in the mail. He did have several years of hardcover activism, earth stuff, but he came to the conclusion that political activism is like pruning the limbs and watering the roots of a tree. He decided a total boycott was more important than any particular political activism.

What has your own faith journey been like?  

I was raised in United Church of Christ (Congregationalist). My mom grew up a Southern Baptist fundamentalist, and my Dad was not fundamentalist—very strict about going to church—but when they met in seminary in the 1960s, it was very progressive and liberal. They became interested in social justice and never became ministers; instead, they became college professors. They felt very strongly that they didn’t want to force my brother and I into anything. Once we got to high school, they gave us the choice of whether we wanted to go to church and we both decided against it.

I went to a Quaker Meeting in Moab for a little while when the war started in 2003 because I was looking for something meaningful. I probably went three times, but there’s not a lot of direction so I just found myself staring out the window. I had no introduction to it. My fiancé was raised Buddhist, and I recently started practicing Buddhism.

How has writing this book changed you?

Writing this book made me realize the money is an illusion; our financial system is a religion we’ve come to believe in. We worship money. For me, a lot of things are seeming fake now that I once thought were real.

Toward the end of the book, you talk a little about your own struggle to live consciously. You say, “How many times have I stood at the kitchen sink paralyzed by a plastic baggie?” (235). You eventually decide that the best way to fight this anxiety is to “grow something,” so you join a community garden. Did the community garden work? Are there other things you discovered that help you deal with the problem of consumption and waste?

It works, and I believe in it very strongly. There are some other really simple things to do, like taking your money out of big banks and putting it in local credit unions. It makes us less reliant on big corporate banks that in 2008 committed the biggest act of fraud in history. And no one has been charged. The government can’t even police these companies because they’re too large.

Another thing I’ve been doing is biking instead of driving. At first, it felt like I was eating my broccoli. I hated it. But now I’ve become addicted to it. If I can’t bike one day or have something heavy I need to move and have to drive, I get grumpy.
 
Another easy thing is to get rid of cable television. TV just makes us stupid, fat and obedient. It’s easy for me to say that because I haven’t had a television since college.

But all of this, biking, washing Ziploc bags, growing food, I think it causes us so much anxiety because these things seem so petty. You think, I want to do an ethical thing, but there’s nothing heroic or grand about washing and reusing Ziploc bags. So Daniel has done something really grand, and the rest of us are stuck doing these silly things. I think the question we need to answer for ourselves is,  “What’s the best way to live an ethical life?”

Is there anything else you didn’t put in the book that you’ve learned in touring and talking with people?

On our six-week tour, we noticed that across the political spectrum, people are coming to a similar conclusion, that our money system is like Frankenstein’s monster: it’s something we can’t control. There’s a feeling of helplessness. In the Tea Party, people don’t trust the Federal Reserve; they think it’s like a cartel, making counterfeit money. In the Occupy movement, they feel like the financial industry is so dominant that the government can’t be held accountable. Centrists have environmental concerns. There is such a belief in the free market that we’re willing to destroy our planet to adhere to this belief that government shouldn’t control markets. We’ll run ourselves into extinction to not violate that belief. But people think, How can I complain when I’m involved? We can’t imagine a different world. I think that’s the reason Daniel is resonating with people. He’s showing that it’s possible to have another set of beliefs, to live a different way.

Another great message that Daniel has is not just that we have to use less stuff. It’s that when you find something you love to do, you don’t worry as much about the bigger house or the material items you want. The superficial things just fade away. Instead of slaving at a job you hate, you can follow your heart.

 

Web Exclusive: Transcript of the Extended Interview with Mark Sundeen

Jana Llewellyn: One of the things I realized as I was preparing for this interview is that a lot of people think it’s an autobiography. People think the man on the cover is Mark Sundeen. Was it hard to write so closely about the intimate details of another person’s life? Was Daniel comfortable sharing those intimate details?

Mark Sundeen: He had never talked publicly about his suicide attempt and his depression, so it was frightening for him. But he’s found peace in talking about it now.

 JL: Toward the end of the book, you talk a little about your own struggle to live consciously. You say, “How many times have I stood at the kitchen sink paralyzed by a plastic baggie?” You eventually decide that the best way to fight this anxiety is to “grow something,” so you join a community garden. Did the community garden work? Are there other things you discovered that help you deal with the problem of consumption and waste? 

MS: It works and I believe in it very strongly. There are some other really simple things to do, like taking your money out of big banks and putting it in a local credit union. It makes us less reliant on big corporate banks that in 2008 committed the biggest act of fraud in history. And no one has been charged. The government can’t even police these companies; they’re too large.

Another thing I’ve been doing is biking instead of driving. At first, it felt like I was eating my broccoli, I hated it. But now I’ve become addicted to it. If I can’t bike one day or have something heavy I need to move and have to drive, I get grumpy.

JL: How far do you bike?

I live about six miles out of town, but I have my writing office in town so that’s where I go every day.

Another easy thing is to get rid of cable television. TV just makes us stupid, fat and obedient.

JL: You say that and I just got HBO because it was such a deal!

MS: I do like HBO. I get those shows on DVD.

JL: Phew.

MS: But it’s easy for me to say that because I’ve never had a television since college. I’ve  recently got on Twitter and I realize that 80% of people tweet about Mad Men. Maybe I’ll watch Mad Men one day, but I’ve noticed there is such a drive to be part of the conversation….

You know, you’re about the fifth person who told me that line resonated with you and it didn’t make it in until the end. I almost didn’t put it in because it was so humiliating.

JL: I’m not surprised. One thing I’ve learned in my own writing is that the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the more people connect.

MS: You know, any writing teacher would tell you to write about what’s humiliating.

JL: When I saw this book, the title really drew me in. Now Daniel is being referred to all the time as “the man who quit money,” but I don’t think people called him that before you wrote the book, right?  

MS: No. When I sold the book, I called it The Man with No Money. But then I read scriptures and realized he renounces money, so I was going to say he renounced money, and then I was going to call it The Man Who Gave Up Money. When my fiancé saw it, she said I should change it to “quit.” It would make it one word instead of two, more powerful. “Give up” is an abstraction, an expression, but “quit” was perfect; it connotes an addiction or something evil. Quitting emphasizes stopping something that’s harmful. When you quit something, it’s a bad thing, but when you say “give up,” it sounds like you’re giving up a good thing.

JL: I thought of it as quitting a job, and our attachment to money is like a job.

MS: Mm-hmm. Everyone assumes money is a good thing, but the title shows you it’s not.

JL: Is there anything else you didn’t put in the book that you’ve learned in touring and talking with people?

MS: On our six-week tour, we noticed that across the political spectrum, people are coming to a similar conclusion, that our money system is like Frankenstein’s monster; it’s something we can’t control. In the Tea Party, people don’t trust the Federal Reserve, they think it’s like a cartel, making counterfeit money. In the Occupy movement, they feel like the financial industry is so dominant that the government can’t be held accountable. centrists have environmental concerns. There is such a belief in the free market that we’re willing to destroy reality (our planet) to adhere to this believe that government shouldn’t control markets.  We’ll run ourselves into extinction to not violate this belief.

But across all three movements is a feeling of helplessness. We talked about the plastic baggie and driving bikes instead of cars. People think, How can I complain when I’m involved? We can’t imagine a different world. I think the reason Daniel is resonating with people is that he’s showing it’s possible. It’s so inspiring to see someone who says what we think is the only way is just a set of beliefs. There’s another way.

I guess this comes back to your question about how this book changed me. It made me realize the money IS an illusion; our financial system is a religion we’ve come to believe in. We worship money. For me, a lot of things are seeming fake now that I once thought were real.

The message that Daniel has is not just that we have to use less stuff. It’s that when you find something you love to do, you don’t worry as much about the bigger house or the stuff you want; those things just fade away. Instead of slaving at a job you hate, you can follow your heart.

JL: This is definitely something I got out of the book and why I found it inspiring. I’ve often felt frustrated with money and banks, that my paycheck is not really my paycheck until it clears with the bank. The more we move to online banking and use less cash, money becomes even more an illusion. I’ve read a lot of dystopic novels that have made me nervous about what would happen if all of that information got in the hands of the wrong people. And something I am always asking myself is “how much do I really need?”

Money is such an emotional issue for me, and I suspect for a lot of other people, which is why Daniel’s story resonated so much.

One of the struggles I’m finding as a parent is trying to talk to my five-year-old son about money. I find money as difficult to talk about as big questions like death. He has no concept right now of how much things cost, and I like it that way. When I try to explain to him that something’s too expensive, he’ll tell me that he has money, and then he’ll hand me a few coins from his piggy-bank. I want to preserve his innocence for a while longer.

MS: Daniel has talked about children, when they become conscious themselves. That their consciousness of credit and debit happens at the same that they learn about good and evil. They learn that things aren’t just want they seem, that we attach a value system.

Daniel has said that he’s lucky that he’s single and doesn’t have children and can live his life this way, but you asked whether this could work with a family. It could, but it would be different. There are communities who are doing it, like Back to the Land. People are finding a way.

Join our October book club discussion about The Man Who Quit Money.

 

Mark Sundeen has been named “one of America’s most innovative writers of literary nonfiction” and was born in Harbor City, California, in 1970. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and the Believer. His other books are Car Camping (HarperCollins, 2000) and The Making of Toro (Simon & Schuster, 2003), and he co-authored North By Northwestern (St. Martin’s, 2010), which was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. He has taught fiction and nonfiction at the MFA creative writing programs at the University of New Mexico and Southern New Hampshire University. He lives in Montana and Utah.

Jana Llewellyn is associate editor at Friends Journal. 


Posted in: Book Club, October 2012: Wall Street, Main Street, and Meetinghouse Road, Quaker Book Reviews
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