The Land of Diminishing Returns
My father always railed against the Pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. As a child I never understood his furor and frustration. As a child you only dully grasp the source, and function of money. It’s there. You get stuff with it. It grows on trees. What happens along the way is that we forget money’s purpose. It becomes an end in itself.
And it’s indicative of and in direct proportion to our sadness as a species.
I think Douglas Adams nailed it when he said,
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
Pretty good, huh? Why are our solutions for unhappiness always fringed with greenbacks? The paper’s happy enough.
I was taught much the same thing as most of the rest of us: You go to school and study hard so that you can get a decent-paying job. You get a house and some cars. You have a family. Aaaaand then sometime thereafter you kick the bucket. As a teenager you naturally rebel against this thinking, but what happens more often than not is that you wind up doing exactly that which you swore you’d never do. Before you know it you’ve got a house (mortgage), cars (loans), TVs, stereos, furniture (credit cards), and children(medical bills, etc, etc)… and expectations to live up to. We’ve been taught that this is the normal course of things. We’ve been taught to follow the money because we have to do all of these things to lead a normal, fulfilling life. Oh, and don’t forget… bigger is better.
If watching our televisions has taught us anything it’s that being rich is no guarantee of happiness. We see a constant stream of celebrity train-wrecks. The pain of Love, intrigue, betrayal, jealousy, hatred, indifference… these things don’t care how much you take home after taxes. You routinely see people who could literally spend money for the duration of their lives and never go broke crash and burn like gnats around a bug zapper or drown soaked in their own despair.
What does this mean? To me it means that money doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation to happiness. Everyone has heard this. Not everyone believes it. Those that do rarely take it to heart. I make pretty decent money at my day job. Not enough so that I didn’t have to find other ways to earn cash to keep the lifestyle I’d lived afloat. I’d pursued money and possessions beyond my means. I’m not ashamed to say that now. Looking back I let myself get caught up in that very thing I said I’d never do: Allow myself to get over-burdened with things and the pursuit of The Almighty Dollar. I had things. Not tons of things and I was never much for keeping up with the Joneses, but a fair lot of things nonetheless. Turns out these things did not make me happy. They did not resuscitate my marriage. They did not shield me from self-loathing or a crushing self-doubt. No amount of money was going to fill in the gaps.
You see somewhere along the line I’d hit a plateau. Seems to me you can only get so happy and you peak. Throwing wads of cash on top doesn’t really improve the experience. My favorite experiences in life came from the simplest events: A canoe trip with friends. Watching leaves float down the gutter toward the storm drain when I was a kid. Bass fishing with my dad. Playing with my sons. Drawing and painting late into the night.
But Gordon Gekko in Wallstreet told us that Greed is good. Good for the economy. Good for America. Good for you and me. Wrong. Unbridled greed has landed us where we are today. Our air, land, water, and culture have all been poisoned in the pursuit of the Dollar Almighty. We’re some greedy bastards and we’ve gotten what we deserved and it’s landed us in some serious shit, but no one seems to care because we’re getting what we want and so long as we get what we want that’s OK, right?
Pass the Budweiser, baby, Jersey Shore’s on.
We want what we want and we sure as hell want more of it… and cheaper while you’re at it. It’s become a religion. In some cases it’s even been adopted into popular religion. If you’re looking you’ll see it. Funny what a little “translation” can do.
What’s it all for though? Really? I like games, but does an XBox360 make me smarter? Does an expensive suit make me more of a man? Do I really sleep better on a $3000 bed? Or is it all just more junk? Maybe if we were hermit crabs and carried our homes around we’d be more selective about how choose to fill our lives. In truth we do carry the weight of these possessions with us everyday. If we didn’t want all of this stuff would we need the money? And if we didn’t need the money well, what would we do?
I’m not saying I’m going to give up all of my possessions and live in a tent, but recent events have made me consider just where my level of diminishing returns is. Where is the point where I’ve got the things I need and I’m happy? How can I simplify my life? How can I be fruitful without taking more than I really need?
I’ll leave off by restating this burning question: If you didn’t need the money what would you do with your life?
If you can answer that question you’re like me. If you’re like me… you’ve got some work to do.