Our culture’s emotions around money

Money brings up strong emotions for most people.  Talk about money for any length of time raises feelings of fear, greed, envy, anxiety, and of lack or “not enough”.

boy goes to the cityAre these feelings just inevitable around money? Definitely not!

The emotions we commonly feel in relation to money are highly specific to our Western culture (and many other cultures too).  Some cultures simply do not feel these emotions around money.  For instance, this young man from rural Paraguay is indignant that money should be so closely associated with food:

“My family lives in the city, but I don’t want to go there. In the city you have to buy everything, even food. Here, whatever we grow is ours. We can eat whatever we want – but in the city, you can’t. If you don’t have money you have to search for food in garbage cans.”

Clearly, he lives in a culture which simply does not equate money with survival or with obtaining food.  His experience of the world is that food is just there – even if it’s in garbage cans.  He does not link lack of money with lack of food: if he lacks money then food is still always available – it’s just in very grubby or inconvenient places.  But in the West one of the most common emotions raised by money is a gut-level fear about survival: for most people money is a life-or-death issue.

The young Paraguayan man makes it clear that this gut-wrenching fear is not about money itself.  Rather, the fear is an emotion which we have learned to associate with money. We learn this as children, along with many other ‘basic’ things about life in Western society.  This linking of survival fears with money is a cultural attitude – it’s not only something we feel as individuals.  We share this feeling with millions of other people in our culture.

Gut-level fear around money ties in with where money comes from.  Privately owned banks are licensed by the government to simply create money by entering numbers into their accounting system when someone takes out a new loan.That wouldn’t be a problem if all the borrower had to do was repay the money. But banks charge interest, and this interest has to be paid from the existing pool of money – so that there is never enough money to go around.

In other words our society’s supply of money manufactures a situation in which those who have it are obligated to repay it with money which doesn’t exist. In this situation, like in the game of musical chairs, someone has to lose.

One thing to realise about our fractional reserve banking system is that, like a child’s game of musical chairs, as long as the music is playing, there are no losers. Andrew Gause, monetary historian

Understandably, then, a very widespread attitude throughout our culture is of “not enough” in relation to money. This attitude is very easy to attach to gut-level survival fears – giving rise to emotions like anxiety, panic, jealousy, competitiveness, hoarding compulsion, greed, and so on.

Alongside this vicious game of musical chairs, Western culture is pervaded by an astonishing schizophrenic split around money. On the one hand money is the worst thing in the world: “Money is the root of all evil.”  Get that: “all” evil!  And the Bible teaches us that money is inherently un-godly: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24) – as though serving “Mammon” i.e. material existence, is diametrically opposed to serving God.

On the other hand our enculturation into the money-and-survival gut-level feelings tell us that money is central to existence. Our feelings here are supported by the news and by politicians: almost all high-profile public debate revolves about money. The common measures of a country’s condition are economic, while fluctuations in the stock market generate widespread emotions of optimism or gloom.

So we live in a culture which sees money as (a) immoral and not spiritual, (b) vital for existence, and (c) not enough to go around.  This is our Western culture – the emotional soup in which we live our daily lives. Is it any wonder that we have “stuff” about money!?

The good news is that there is no actual physical reality about money – it is purely a cultural creation, a mechanism legislated into existence, which our young Paraguayan speaker above clearly illustrates. This means that we can come into our own relationship with money.

Money certainly has a material presence in our culture, and so there is a level at which we have to practically engage with it, like following the road rules to avoid being run over, or using toilets to reduce disease and odour. But we don’t have to accept the significance of money which we were socialised into as children and which pervades the social world around us, in the media, and in the attitudes of people we commonly interact with.  We can recognise this material presence and weave it in to our lives via meanings we create ourselves and via emotions we choose to generate.

We can do this by coming into a conscious relationship with the money-related emotions we are familiar with – as with any personal growth process, a first step is to be able to recognise and name our internal patterns.  Through consciousness-raising – i.e. new perspectives like the content of this blog, more accurate information, and reviewing our own experiences in the light of this new data – we can come to recognise the extent to which we have learned our familiar money emotions, and that those emotions are culturally supported by those around us and are not actually giving us accurate information about money itself.

And we can intentionally open ourselves to many resources, both internal and external, to seed the creation of our own stories about money, our own relationship(s) with money, our own meanings and our own patterns of action and emotion around money.

There’s many possibilities as to what our new stories and new emotions might be. Some stories already circulating revolve around themes of “abundance” attitudes, prosperity consciousness, empowerment (my own favourite), the Occupy movement, and living without money. We can find our own relation with these – or make up more!

The vital step is coming to recognise our culture’s familiar emotions about money – and to realise they don’t have to be ours own personal emotions.

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