HONESTY CIRCLES - MONEY AND THE MEANING OF LIFE
I've come to the sense that we human beings have two fundamental forces within us. One, is to function well and honorably in this life and material world -- of spending, comfort, family, success, health, community. Another current, another part of our human nature is our quest for what we call inner transformation or transcendence or openness to a higher reality within us and the universe. These two natures define us. And we're here on earth to come to a balance between the two, each on its proper role. That's where meaning comes in. The meaning of our life briefly, is when we can stand in between those two fundamentally, seemingly contradictory, elements of our human nature, and allow them to be balanced in some way such that the material outward, forces serves our inner and the higher, into a third reality where a human being is full.
When I started studying philosophy at university, I came back to my family in the first year of college. I was from a Jewish family, not very religious, but very traditional, which meant that I was obliged to become a doctor, metaphysically and socially. [Laughs] Although I loved science and biology, I had to risk telling my parents, especially my father, that I've decided to become a professor of philosophy. Neither of my parents went to college, but my father heard and his eyes went slightly crossed. He wanted to know what a philosopher does for a living, and I told him we tried to contemplate the ultimate questions of why we're here on earth, what our life is for, does God exist. And his eyes got closer and closer. He said, "Can't you do that and also be a banker?" [Laughs] When I got my PhD, my mother was at my party of "Dr. Needleman" and called out to the crowd "Oh, he's not the kind of the doctor that does anybody any good." She was a very loving person, by the way. But at this party, everybody was startled and then everybody laughed. I didn't laugh, but I loved her anyway.
Money in our modern world has become the principle means for organizing our outer material life. For many of us, no fear is greater than the fear of not having money. Money seems so real because there is nothing more vivid, than the question of how to have enough money, and our most intense inner experience lies in the realm of emotional drives such as hunger, safety, and the avoidance of pain.
But what is the point of physical survival without meaning, or without being conscious of ourselves? It is not a question of getting rid of these desires or fears. But what do most of us have to put in their places? —nothing that is as vivid, except perhaps in physical pain or in front of death. Otherwise there is nothing in most of our lives as enduringly intense as the money question. Therefore nothing seems as real. The money question is so strong not because money is ultimately real but because our experiences with it have become—for most of us—the most vivid and intense experiences of our lives.
There are many concepts, ideas, habits, and conditionings received in our childhood, that support this fundamental illusion about money. But the main and basic point has to do with the intensity of experience.
I came from a family where my father and his parents were tremendously frightened and concerned about money. They were devoted to the functioning in a way that every penny counted and there was fear about money in my father's bones. I grew up surrounded by that fear.
When I told them that I was becoming a philosopher, and every time I would come back and talk about philosophy, and finally, and especially when I became a professor of philosophy, I came home very proud of myself and wanted to show them I've written a book about philosophy and various things, and his response was almost always: "How much do you earn?" It shook me. I didn't really want to say anything else. I was still discovering meaning, opening ideas, facing dogma questions, and great ideas from ancient men, ancient traditions in the East and West, but no matter what I would do and no matter how well my career went, every time I came back home, my father's first question was, "How much do you earn?" It really annoyed the hell out of me, and it hurt me. Time went on, lots of time, almost 50 years or more, and he was lonely, living alone with severe diabetes. My mother had died, he had gone to an elder care home, and his illness was getting bad. Around the age of 87, he was in the hospital, and my brother and I went to visit him. My brother and I talked to each other, we went outside for a long time, we were going to have to let him go because he was very, very weak. As I was about to leave to go back, as he was in the hospital bed in pain, I whispered in his ear, something I have never been able to say: "I love you, Dad." I never have been able to say that to him. He looked at me very quietly and said, "How much do you earn?" I was so shaken by that. I couldn't believe it. I kissed him and I left. As I was going back home, I realized that was his way of loving. All the posture he had for expressing love was around money; that was part of his life, and it washed everything clean.
Now I tell that story, which I've never told in public before, but I tell it today because I wanted to raise a deeper question. When we are faced with uncertainty, we can respond in two ways -- one as problems to be solved, and the other as questions to be lived. We sometimes short circuit that great distinction, that our problem requires immediate thinking, organizing, and action. But, a question is something that draws us inward, to open to the truth of ourselves, eventually turning the questions into mysteries. A mystery is an unknown that attracts another energy into us if we can live with it.
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