The puzzle of financial prosperity and spiritual cultivation

My dad knows the price of just about everything. He can tell good deals from bad ones, whether we’re talking cars or mangoes, real estate or running shoes. He cuts coupons assiduously, reads the Sunday ads religiously, makes lists habitually, and then plots out plans of attack. He grew up in a working class family, finished an MBA long before such things were the king’s coin, and worked as a CFO for a family-owned grocery store for well-nigh 25 years. He’s earned his retirement.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot from him, mainly about how to be prudent but also about how not to get taken. The general lesson—that sense should hold enthusiasm in check—has served me well during my time in New York.

I was lucky that my parents managed to get on in the world because it gave me the room I needed for my imagination to grow. My mind, like those of other children fortunate enough to enjoy the leisure time provided by a stable home and a safe community, wandered, meandered, and strolled. Admittedly, my daydreams were nothing remarkable, surely not the heady stuff of child savants or the sinuous couplets of young poets, and yet, as they were, they were nourishing. For not only did they compensate for my lack of genuine friendships (for me, the idea of friendship has almost always outpaced the thing itself) but they also signaled the beginning of a life that henceforth would be committed to things beautiful and excellent.

No doubt this beautiful idyll reads too much like a dream. In reality, the split runs deep, with two lovely ideals—financial prosperity and spiritual cultivation—parting ways and remaining unreconciled to the end. According to some, the first is necessary while the second is all trim and ribbon. According to others, money fills the mind with so much clutter, with so many anxieties as to crowd out all questions of meaning, value, and purpose. And so what are tulips—commodities to be bought and sold or natural beauties to be perceived and appreciated? On the subway, bankers and painters look at each other uncomprehendingly as though each were writing an ethnography of the strangest creatures imaginable—or an obituary of the common fool.

I feel this too, this great conceptual strain, and very intimately at that in my relationship with my dad. In our conversations, he naturally gravitates toward food and mattress topics at the very moment that I’m drawn to questions of the heart. Quite often we speak at cross purposes without any hope of translation or mediation.

Yet this strain in our vocabulary between the material and the spiritual, between the everyday and the transcendent, is not a permanent feature of the human condition no matter how natural it may seem and regardless of how painful it may feel. For starters, we can all agree that without a certain level of wealth most of us wouldn’t be able to lead dignified lives, lives where generosity, integrity, and good humor unfold on stage. True, money is no sanctuary, but it can be a shelter. Listen to Virginia Woolf who says that what a writer really needs is a “room of one’s own”—a room of one’s own and then let her be.

However, we shouldn’t confuse the need for money with the aim of spiritual enrichment: we need money not for its own sake but for the sake of making and enjoying higher things, for the sake of making ourselves into higher beings. I think of Velasquez paintings, palmy sunrises, rollicking conversations, arresting kisses, and uplifting hymns. I think also of courage and resilience, of passion and commitment, of compassion and duty. These are but a few of the glories of civilization. Surely, there are others.

Thus, the right attitude to have toward money is the one that Aristotle advocated millennia ago. The virtue of liberality, he says, sits between the defect of meanness and the excess of prodigality. Prodigals are spendthrifts who indulge their appetites whereas those who embody meanness are poor in spirit; they are unwilling to open their hands to friends or their hearts to strangers. By contrast, the liberal person gives freely what is due to each, and in giving freely she feels large beyond words.

Granted, having money won’t make life meaningful; yet having enough of it—just enough of it—may make it possible. When money sits well with us, we sit well with the world, opening ourselves to the rich opportunities to be good, to apprehend beauty, to examine ourselves closely, to speak our loves candidly, and to love life entirely.

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