Continuing on my theme, though it has not been universally well received, of a ‘reality’ check – I felt it was important to address the issue of money. There are a lot of misconceptions about money; most hovering around ideas that go something like, “Do what you love and money will follow,” or “Money can’t buy happiness” or “Money can’t buy me love”. You get the drift, you’ve likely heard that nonsense all your life.

“Money can’t buy happiness,” that’s my favorite; the trope of poor people just as much as “Beauty is on the inside” is that of ugly people. And it is of course bullshit; just as I’ve met many beautiful people who are also lovely (and many ugly people who are unpleasant), I’ve known extremely happy rich people and – well – significantly more unhappy poor people. Turns out it’s miserable to be poor, who knew?

Now, I’ve had significant experience with poverty, so it’s not something I treat lightly. Irony is difficult when you’re hungry, and you cannot eat disdain. Personal, as well as professional, I might add. I had the distinct privilege of living in public housing in the latter part of my formative years, in time to graduate from the local gang school where extra-curricular entertainment was watching the Mexican American gangs fight the ‘Wetbacks’ (not my monikers, that’s what they called themselves – hate elsewhere, if you must), usually with fists, sometimes with bicycle chains. One of my friends, a Panamanian, was clubbed with a pipe (his crime, I guess, he wasn’t Mexican American or ‘Wetback’). Ask me if I was thinking about Harvard and whether I would row crew or play lacrosse. The girl fights were the most spectacular. Fast-forward a little, I once became deathly ill – a nutritional problem, linked to my .99 cent McDonalds diet. Turns out man shall not live on one Big-Mac alone; but the wallet wants what it wants. (Knut Hamsun once wrote a remarkable novel called “Hunger”, look no further than there for the full horror). I almost did not graduate college for lack of $2500 for the final semester. Anyway, not to belabor a point but there were no silver spoons in my past.

I think it is professionally, however, where my realization of poverty has blossomed into the present-day contempt. I started my career in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where I lived during the 2nd Civil War (often called Africa’s World War) during which more than 5,000,000 died while ten armies ravaged each other for the prizes of diamonds and gold and coltan and wood and influence. I managed 70 feeding centers, most supplementary but about eleven therapeutic. Therapeutic feeding centers are for those children who are extremely malnourished and require special care, being woken up every few hours to receive exact quantities of UNICEF supplied formula, requiring nursing and doctors present, as well as IV capacity, etc. They are clinical facilities, usually located in a hospital – in this case a crappy old Belgian hospital bedraggled and beaten by tropical time. There is nothing in the world like a room full to bursting with children, in which you can hear a pin drop. Malnourished children do not even have the energy to cry, much less play with the broken down used toys donated by the do-gooder army of the west, efforts to empty their children’s unwanted detritus in exchanging for a tax write off.

A feeding center in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

It perpetuated, over the decades, this war did. And the centers are still there. My wars too, five of them or maybe six, depends on how you count – poverty in the Ugandan camps, whole villages piled one atop another in terror of the nightly raids of the Lords Resistance Army (read my novel on this subject, if you want to get a feel for the mayhem).

Little girl Boko Haram bombers, drugged on fentanyl and sent through the army checkpoints because they are less frequently searched.

Northeast Nigeria

Armenian refugees, who lost everything in the latest wave of Caucasus violence that goes back well before history started writing down the fights – little blond refugees in Kosovo filling up an old tobacco-drying facility, unaware they were of the wrong race and religion.

Prisren, Kosovo

Honduran children in makeshift homes.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

All of whom would, incidentally, have been helped out with a little money.

Which brings me back to “Money doesn’t buy happiness”. What those who utter this phrase probably mean is “Even rich people can do stupid shit that makes them miserable”. Trudat – but it’s the same stupid shit poor people do all the time. So the money really is not the variable here, it’s man’s limitless capacity to get himself in trouble. And the reality is that money absolutely does buy happiness, considered from every metric. Let’s think of some examples: You want a house. Where would you be happier, public housing in a gang neighborhood or five acres in Fauquier county with your horses? That takes money. You want a college degree. Which is better worth your time, Harvard or Devry? You want to go to the movies. Which is better, having a car (and one that starts and is not always in the shop) or taking the bus? You would like to vacation. Would you prefer a private plane to a private island with its own private beach, or coach to a three-star buffet-line-out-the-door on a public beach ‘resort’? You are sick. The Mayo clinic, or the local public hospital? You want to give to your fellow man. What is more satisfying; setting up a philanthropic foundation and traveling the world identifying amazing people and wonderful causes, or mailing a check to the YMCA? I could go on, but you get the point.

Notwithstanding, I want to focus more on the “Do what you love” argument. Because that is the crux; the ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma; and the one that befuddled me. As if the opportunity cost associated with each decision forces the negation of the other. A fool’s choice. Because the likelihood is, for what you love, you’ll need plenty-o’-cheese. Want to be a professional hockey player? Gonna need the gear and the ring time – not cheap in Phoenix, Arizona (and damn near impossible in Maiduguri, Nigeria). Want to be in politics? You’re gonna need to be independently wealthy to run (and be willing to lose a bunch) in order to maybe win (to say nothing of a few hundred million in campaign money). Want to be a writer? You’re gonna need about $10,000 per book, along with six months off to coax forth your best work. Add $100,000 for a 30 second commercial on TBS during Everybody Loves Raymond. Unless you’re Michelle Obama, as I was recently told by an agent (fun fact, I’m not!). Care about the environment? Poverty is, by far, the greatest polluter. Living a ‘green’ life in America is extraordinarily expensive; to say nothing of saving the whales which costs billions.  

It is more dramatic for those trapped in third world poverty, and don’t assume I am ungrateful for my chance birth. If anything, that is the point of this quasi-rant. We, as a country and as individuals, are missing out on our tremendous bounty through stupidity (rich and poor alike) and our overpowering narrative of victimization. Personally, I’m a little over-the-top as I teach my son to be grateful to God for everything he has (I’m sure it will backfire…). But I’m also putting every extra penny into his 529 (want to contribute? Buy one of my books!!). Because it needs to end. Ending poverty is generational; and involves hard work and some luck. The grandfather will build and (unless he is Henry Ford) it will take his whole life. By the time his children are fifty, perhaps he will have something to pass on to his son, in time for Jr. to reap a more relaxed retirement. Hopefully also a better earning potential product of the 529. But it will only be the third generation where the flexibility – abundance – will come. No need to be tied to a bad school district; to a meaningless job; to a difficult commute. It must start somewhere, that’s the lesson, for my little boy (and which I am learning late). Be grateful, work hard, and save; I’m saving for him, with the hopes that my grandchildren will never know the dry-mouthed panic of an empty bank account. I at least owe them that, though they are not yet born.

Save as if your child’s happiness depended on it; it likely does.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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1 Response to Money

  1. Pingback: More on Money | Joel D. Hirst's Blog

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