Poorness in Richness

If you ever get to talk with a well-paid, young resident of any random global city, such as London or, say Geneva, the likelihood is very high that your conversation will sooner or later turn towards the topic of how difficult it is to find real, true friendships in such a cold, career-minded environment. Perhaps you will also get to hear how much better things were, where ever the person came from (nobody in London or Geneva actually comes from either city, and even if they do, rest assured that everything was better where ever they were before they started cashing in the big bucks).

You may be tempted to secretly think that the investment bankers and corporate lawyers of London should hardly be surprised about their plight, given the empty money-(not people-)focussedness of their jobs. Yet this theory fails regarding the international civil servants of Geneva, who are concerned with such noble endeavours such as disarmament, human rights, decent work conditions, care for refugees, health standards, humanitarian interventions in crises, and also slightly less noble endeavours such as the worldwide unleashing of capitalism via trade. But even trade is promoted solely for the noble purpose of eradicating poverty.

The assumption that jobs dominantly shape the lives of people underestimates the impact of one of the most coveted byproducts of jobs: wealth. Regardless of whether money is the core of the job like in London, or whether money comes as an extra to the actual job, like in Geneva, in both cases it increases the wealth of the people involved.

And as you get wealthy, something that is hard to describe is lost. One of the few occasions, when this ageless knowledge surfaces nowadays is when the rich traverse back to interacting with the poor on their adventure trips to developing countries. All of their stories are sure to contain their surprised acknowledgement that “the people there were poor, but happy!” (by the way, this doesn’t work for executives of developed countries doing community service in their own country – they usually find the encountered deprivation to be in a rather depressing state).

And yet, for centuries this realization has been brushed away by philosophers and economists alike, culminating in the beautiful observation by Herman Melville in his 1851 novel Moby Dick: “The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!” Over a hundred years later, Barret Strong confirmed the continuing validity of Melville’s observation in the lyrics of his song “Money (That’s what I want)”: “The best things in life are free – But you can keep em for the birds and bees / Your lovin give me such a thrill – But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills / Money don’t get everything it’s true – What it don’t get I can’t use”

The Flying Lizards – Money (That’s What I Want!) (1979 cover version of the original 1959 Barret Strong song):

Wealth allows its owners to purchase away almost all inconveniences of life. Astoundingly, the most thorough description of this effect can be found in the novel for children “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende. The child hero Bastian transverses to the world of Fantasia, where all of his wishes are fulfilled in a far more elaborate way than he had asked for. As a matter of fact, his wishes alone are what create the entire world of Fantasia. But he has to pay a price: For every wish that is granted to him, he forgets why he had wished for that specific thing in first place – thus he cannot remember or understand what had been missing in his life before.

Similarly, our economy is shaped by the wishes of the consumers – whose wishes generally are fulfilled in far more elaborate ways than they had asked for. And while the process of forgetting is less formal than in Fantasia, unconsciously the better-off indeed lose their ability to understand how it feels to be in a state of discomfort – or, more precisely, they fail to see the reason for being in a state of discomfort, because they get used to being able to buy away any discomfort with money. Two artists who are well aware of this are Fergie in her 2007 song Glamorous and Jennifer Lopez in her 2002 “Jenny from the Block” – both insist upon remaining unchanged despite having become wealthy, yet remain alarmingly vague about the status of their relationships with their former blockmates.

Jennifer Lopez – Jenny from the Block (2002):

But why is money’s ability to buy away discomfort so critical for friendship? Because helping a friend out in times of distress is the litmus-test of the so deeply revered “real” friendship. But how to help each other out, when money enables everyone to help themselves? Money can buy you everything from cooking to counseling: cooking with friends can be replaced with restaurants and internet recipes, and ever since Woody Allen, you know that your psychoanalyst is the person to go to for long, meaningful conversations – unlike friends, the market will never let you down: there always will be who is not too busy to listen to you for money.

Poorness-induced discomforts, such as having to hitch rides, asking people to stay at their places for free, asking people to help you move your stuff over time become more and more incomprehensible to the affluent. All of these issues can be done away with money, so why unnecessarily strain your existing friendships with asking for rides, stay-overs or muscle power?

But do true friendships really need to be tested? Does anybody really want to know that in crucial moments, he or she cannot really rely on his or her alleged friends? And shouldn’t the paucity of serious situations on the contrary enable people to spend less time on materialistic worries, and more time on the intellectual pleasures of engaging in meaningful friendships based on the Romantic ideal of purest mutual sympathy for each other? After all, asking a friend to help one out of inconvience only inconveniences the respective friend, thus spoiling the intellectual relationship by material annoyances – thus, it oftentimes even is for the sake of friendship that we rather spend money than ask friends for help. Some sociologists even argue that we have become so accustomed to the concept of economic trading of goods of equal value that even evaluate our interactions with friends in economic terms – not wanting to give or receive more than we give or receive ourselves in return.

It turns out though, that the special case of asking friends for help in exceptional situations actually generalizes to the entire concept of friendship. That is because regardless of the specific circumstances, even in times where no help from friends is required, friendship always comes at a personal sacrifice: time. The time you spend with friends is most often time not spent on earning money (and/or saving the world/fulfilling themselves, etc.).

Consequently, one of the other major accomplishments of Michael Ende is his novel for children “Momo”. In that book, every hour of every human’s life is described as an immensely beautiful flower that blossoms and withers over the course of every hour spent – especially on enjoyable things such as social interaction, imagination, culture, and sleeping. If, however, the owner of the time, starts considering these activities as “wasting” time, and the time-owner instead prefers to engage in “saving” time, all of the flowers not spent on such activities are stored in the time-saving bank run by the Grey Gentlemen, who make cigarettes out of all the saved flowers that they smoke and thus appropriately make all the “saved” time vanish into smokey air. In the book, the Grey Gentlemen also succeed in making the people forget about the reasons why they wanted to save time in the first place.

In real life however, listening to the narratives of countless young high potentials scattered throughout the world suggests that they are painfully aware of something missing in their lives, otherwise they wouldn’t be complaining to you.  Curiously, they do not see any link between their situation and their own behavior. Their work commitments only allow them to meet a limited number of people and the people that they do meet only stay for a few months anyways. So, they divide their time between work, old friends and travel, and feel that it’s the only response available to them in a world not interested in their friendship.

Alas, you want tell them that it does not matter, whether they meet few or many people, and that it also does not matter how long their acquaintances remain in the same city. You want to suggest to them that they should make the most of the people that they do meet for short durations, by investing as much of themselves as possible into the mutual time spent, and not to forget that skype and facebook will partially compensate when people move locations. You even anticipate them telling you that it’s all not worth it, that they’ve been let down too often before and that they’ve given up, and also that they are busy. To which you would reply that yes, disappointments will invariably occur, and still one should over-invest in others, one should help them out even if they’ve never helped one out before – not only will helping out others enable you to get to know yourself and your friends (or potential friends) from a new perspective (those are the things you’ll remember later on…the day that something happened and soandso jumped to the rescue or simply was kind in the right moment…), but also, that making the first step and investing in strangers may well be the only way to overcome the vicious cycle of unfound friendship, consisting of repeatedly feeling let down and letting others down in turn, thereby being unhappy amidst all the wealth that one has amassed.

But it’s too late, your conversation partner from London or Geneva has already moved on and had no time to listen to your advice. All that is left for you is to contemplate about the paradoxical conflict between money and friendship, realizing that if the Londoners and Genevans really  succeed in making more and more people wealthy, this conflict is here to stay.

Abba – Money, Money, Money (1976):

Get Rich this week (but don’t Die Tryin’)!