Sunday, 13 September 2009

Loving the world II: Your Money or Your Life?

Back on Nick Baines' blog one of the things that gets discussed in comments is how to act to improve the world. There's no real end to that discussion, the world is complex and we all have much to learn.

One of the things that always springs to my mind is that, locally or globally, money talks. Donating money to worthy charities is one way to channel resources to where they are most needed; another is to try to be aware of our spending. The latter is fraught with difficulty; the complexity of international markets is such that I can't always tell, for example, the working conditions of the people who made the food I'm eating or the clothes I'm wearing. I consider it my responsibility to try to be aware of this where possible; it's a lot easier now than it used to be, with "Fairly Traded" labelling and the ability to research labour policies of various companies online, but keeping track of the information for every purchase I make is still impossible. At some point I just have to accept that the money I spend is not always going to go toward improving the world and may actually cause harm.

But there's a falseness to a model in which I track my financial outgoings but not my words or actions, which may have nothing to do with money. If I donate money to worthy charities and only buy the most scrupulously ethically sourced goods, but earn my living by exploiting others, what is the good of my ethical spending habits? If I earn a pittance and spend very little, so doing only a very small amount of damage with my financial power, but I speak and act with hatred, fear and loathing for all I meet, what good is my restraint?

On the flip side of that, it takes more than money and physical goods to make a positive difference in the world. Our family had some difficult times growing up but I was never seriously at any risk of being homeless and any time I went to bed hungry it was a punishment, not a result of not having enough food. I have never had to seriously wonder where my next meal will come from! And yet until a few years ago I was painfully unhappy. I don't think the positive difference people made in my life is negated because it didn't cost them much money, or any money in some cases. I am deeply grateful that some people realised that throwing money at my negative situation was not going to change it, and instead did things that were actually helpful.

This is an issue I encounter in my own experiences teaching music. I have often said I'd be happy to teach for free, on the grounds that much of what I teach -- I hope -- has no easily quantifiable value. I charge money for my work not because I think that is the value of the work I do, but because I cannot live on air. This is especially challenging when I am faced (as I currently am) with the prospect of potentially promising students who cannot afford my fee, but when I am not yet earning enough to pay my own rent... but I digress. There is another side to it, which is that the majority of my customers (usually parents of my students) think of my services as something they pay a certain amount for. They pay their money and get back, hopefully, a certain outcome. While I cannot guarantee an outcome I am expected to put in a certain amount of work and effort because I am being paid. People are liable to get quite uppity if they pay me and do not think they are getting the agreed-upon results. I find that sometimes, paying students take the commitment of lessons far more seriously than those with whom I've worked out some sort of barter or exchange. Sometimes, people erroneously think that because something costs a certain amount of money, it is actually worth that amount of money. A price tag gives them an illusion of control.

A topic that has led to some discussion of payment for services rendered is that of touch. We live in a world where touch is oft considered sexual and threatening, where a teacher comforting a crying child with a hug could be prosecuted, where it is not normal for many families and friends to touch one another in the course of daily life. I'm not in a position to judge whether this is healthy: I don't think non-consensual touch is a good alternative to the paranoia around touch that we have now. But I would posit that some touch is necessary for most people, that growing up learning to be afraid of touch and associate it only with sex probably leads to unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes in romantic and platonic relationships. It seems that if we do need touch for a sense of connection with others or a sense of being loved, but it is made inaccessible by cultural or personal hang-ups, we might seek some other way of meeting those needs. In light of this, an interesting phenomenon is that of "pampering" services such as massage, facials, and other treatments designed to be relaxing. It seems to me that a lot of these involve touch. Certainly my favourite thing about going to a hairdresser has always been that most wonderful sensation of having someone else wash my hair, which does leave me feeling cared for in a very basic way. Yet that is still not the same as a cuddle with Sweetie, or a hug from a friend. I don't go to a hairdresser regularly, but if I did and we met on the street on a day when I was feeling rotten, I very much doubt we'd hug -- but if I run into some of my friends a hug is very normal. The professional nature of certain relationships constrains touch to strictly defined areas. Touch we pay for is safe, and usually one-sided. We take control of the situation by quantifying it.

Now, I don't advocate that hairdressers, massage therapists et cetera should do their work for free, unless they so choose. It's entirely possible that just as I love teaching in and of itself and care very much for each of my students and express that through the way I teach, someone else might find deep joy and calm in aspects of physical care; neither of us can live on air and I suspect there will always be some demand for such services. I don't necessarily think it is wrong to attempt to meet our needs for touch through paid services, either: better that than through violent, coercive or destructive relationships. But I need a lot of hugs to keep myself ticking over, and I need to give a lot of love, too. Touch interactions where financial remuneration is expected do not seem to have the mutuality or reciprocity that I find very rewarding. I think the tendency to reduce all our interactions to financial transactions is ultimately a giant red herring. The things I prize most are given freely.

Money can be exchanged for goods and services in a lawful market, but that market is not all-encompassing. Love is not marketable. Nobody can pay me so much money that I love them; nobody can pay me to stop loving them.

But just as neglecting the local in favour of international concerns or vice versa is not a sustainable way forward, neglecting the material needs of the world is a cop-out. It may be that more than just financial commitment is necessary, but no amount of warm fuzzy well-wishing can address real poverty. It just isn't enough just to think kind thoughts about the poor or the weak or the sick: we must provide food, shelter, medicine. That costs money.


Ernest said...


Once again, you strike a chord with three different but allied topics.

I agree that we need to do more than think and care about the issues of poverty and deprivation - and giving money can be a salve to conscience and a cop out from becoming actively involved. There is no substitute for working alongside those striving to rid the world of poverty and deprivation. Finding the right outlet is key to that.

I work with a charity working for ex-servicemen, who have fallen on hard times. This is my interest, as an Ex-Serviceman myself who has been more fortunate. It does not solve world problems, but helps alleviate local problems (keeping it local).

I have worked all my life, exchanging my labour for cash in the form of salary, and now in pension. I will now be working unpaid as I seek to test a vocation, which will require extensive training - Initially I am self funding training until and when and if I am accepted for formal training. If this happens, than funding will cover further training. The reality is that I wold self fund all of the way through as I really feel called to do it.

Relationships and touching are a difficult area. I would say that I am a tactile person, and think nothing of hugging someone I know and who I have established a rapport with, this includes my family, friends, some former work colleagues and grand children. The difficulty comes with people who you have not established a personal rapport with or children, as motives can so easily be misconstrued. So we err on the side or safety.

I am sad but realistic about this situation as it is beyond my control, although I think that perhaps it has gone to far, each of us has their own limits and might well consider it invasion of personal space, an assault or something more sinister.

Tolerance is sadly lacking in life and mistrust has become instilled in people to the detriment of all of us. I don't have any solutions apart from the pragmatic one of demonstrating that I care and hope for response from those I meet or deal with.

Song in my Heart said...


Finding the right outlet is key to that.

Yes, very much so: more on this in a later post!