“Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is. Fortunately, I love money.” —Jackie Mason

Money, money, money! It’s on our minds, motivates our muscles and getting/making/attracting it consumes not just our time, but for some… their entire waking lives. Hell, maybe even their dreaming lives too! In short their entire soul.

What money means to each of us, our relationship to it, and what we are each willing to do in order to acquire it remains wholly individual. But universally, it tends to have a powerful, shape-shifting, hallucinogenic effect all of us.

Think of money as your penis. You know how much you think about and hold it and consider its relationship to your entire life. Money, like your penis, is not about how much you have; it’s about how you understand and use it. The way we think about money, how we hold it as a concept, consider it and relate to it is important. It is as worthy and ubiquitous as our sex lives—especially since money and sex might be connected. And, like any hallucinogen, money’s power and effect on us is in our minds and is ever-shifting.

How can we even attempt to fulfill ourselves, let alone find or pursue our purpose and meaning without thinking about such an enormous aspect of our lives? Can one even truly attest to being a gentleman without a deep and nuanced understanding of what money means? You might be finding yourself with a knee-jerk reaction like “Who cares, as long as I make a lot of it?” So, though I get how emotional and even primal the subject might be, man, get a grip, check it out, face the moolah head on.

What is it? It’s a medium of exchange. It is stuff that can be traded for a whole bunch of other stuff. And although unto itself it is not alive, it has a huge and varied impact on us living folks.

Years ago I read a quote from the great early Twentieth Century historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford that I thought was: “Money is the greatest hallucinogen known to mankind.” And as someone who has undergone a few mind-altering rituals in my life, I had a keen sense of the hallucinogenic effects that he was referring to.

You know, the ultra, near-virtual psychedelic effects that folks often encounter inside their heads—that only they alone can “see” or experience. Similarly, I have experienced a very sudden shift inside my mind when I have received a sudden sum of green—even if the bucks were only hypothetical. Maybe the effect would have more closely rivaled the Wow! of my psychedelic experience if the sum that I was dealing with was mega. Like huge. Like life-altering big. Maybe one day I’ll know.

 “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” —Oscar Wilde

I recall a time when a film script of mine was in the midst of a bidding war and my agent phoned me. He told me the enormous number that was being bandied about. We’re talking about, like, big-new-house kind of dough. I got off the phone, told my wife… and we both had to immediately go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, I regret to report that the bidding war fizzled out. But what had occurred wasn’t a dream or an illusion; our minds were processing information that caused a literal shift in our perception that our bodies reacted to. We still got high… for a day.

Plenty of studies have attempted to measure money’s neurological and psychological effects on us. In a fascinating article in Yale Insights, published by the Yale School of Management, research indicates that the mere mention of money made people less helpful to others than in instances where money didn’t come up. It also referenced a study in China that indicated money or the feeling of having money reduced levels of pain.

In 2010, a series of experiments published in Psychological Science found that lower-class people appeared to be better able to read emotional cues on other people’s faces than upper class folks. They called this “empathic accuracy,” suggesting that less money correlated to a greater sense of empathy and compassion. Though one might attribute this phenomenon to the fact that a greater survival instinct comes with having less, it still supports the notion that there are real behavioral differences because of money and/or one’s attitude towards it.

“Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.” —Robin Williams

It turns out that I had that Lewis Mumford quote slightly wrong. His actual quote was, “Money has proved the most dangerous of modern man’s hallucinogens.” It is from one of his last books, considered by many to be his crowning achievement, Pentagon Of Power: The Myth Of The Machine. The “machine” that he is referring to, or what he also calls the “megamachine” is civilization, with its insatiable, voracious need to consume. Just as science has correlated the release of the pleasure-creating neurotransmitter, dopamine, with getting high on drugs, shopping, gambling, sex, or receiving money, Mumford suggested that the entire civilization was stoned through its similarly uncontrolled appetite and need to feed the machine, consume, spend and make money.

Furthermore, this altered, “high” state impairs judgment at all levels of “the machine”—from captains of industry and politicians to generals and scientists. So if you think that your addicted buddy is not particularly trustworthy or capable of good judgment, consider many of our societal decisions through a similarly sober lens. And also remember that many addicted folks don’t even know and/or won’t admit that they have a problem.

What about that CEO, politician, or your successful hedge fund manager pal? Would they even consider that there is a problem with the entire system? Or maybe there is no issue at all? How much is enough? How many billions does one need? As Warren Buffett, who is among the sanest of billionaires, said on CNN recently while discussing philanthropy: “If someone can’t live on a hundred million dollars, they have problems.”

Do they? What is someone’s incentive to spend their time making another billion dollars? They already have enough money to fund a dynasty for centuries into the future. What compels someone to wake up in the morning and make more—especially if the creating of their wealth does not directly improve the lives or environment of others. The game? The power? Filling an endless hole of psychological deficiencies?

We certainly attribute near mystical qualities to money. But it is too easy to simply say things so glib as “money equals energy,” or “money is the root of all evil.” It’s too simple and it is not the truth or certainly not the whole truth. In fact most things said about money are not entirely true—and/or certainly not entirely true to each individual’s personal connection to it.

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” —Seneca

Operating from a “position of wealth” may or may not have anything to do with that person’s abilities, intelligence, self-worth, etc. The suicide rate among the rich is disproportionately high.

If a gun is a great equalizer, money is a great influencer. It’s not an equalizer because money can’t always buy what you want. Everyone has their price? Really? In the classic Hero’s Journey, the hero typically gets/earns The Reward only after an arduous battle where she/he likely sacrificed something of value, but—and this is a huge but—after attaining the reward, that treasure that was the reason for the journey to the top of the mountain in the first place, then the hero must lug it home. Ever try to lift a treasure and carry it down a mountain? Getting the gold was tough, but getting it home, The Return, might be even more difficult. For gold and treasure has little value on a mountain. Not only is it valueless until it is brought home and converted into money, but even in its rawest unusable form, it immediately needs to be protected.

So now, as though you don’t have enough to worry about, you need to look over your shoulder and be afraid, very afraid that someone out there on that mountain might try to steal it from you. Integrating The Reward into usable currency is called The Return Home and in Hero’s Journey lore, this is only three quarters of the distance needed to travel. The final quarter is often filled with danger and fear and ultimately requires a final test of the Hero’s fortitude before she/he brings it home—at which point the treasure becomes an elixir. What had been raw value finally becomes magical in its ability to change the very soul of the Hero. In the Arthurian Excalibur legend, for example, the great magical sword that was permanently embedded in a large stone can only be removed after Arthur has gone through his journey and transformed himself via his elixir into a person with elixir-like abilities. Then he’s able to remove it effortlessly.

What does all this have to do with you and money and hallucinations? You are the hero of your own life, which consists of many journeys. And your internal transformation can allow you to do new things and see the world in ways you never had before—regardless of money and/or because of money.

Sure, lots of us want fuck-you money and the swagger that comes with it. Money, the chimera; it glistens in the dark, it vibrates like a beckoning mirage or like a distant castle.

You’ve heard the expression “You could drown in a puddle of water.” That’s how low to the ground you’d have to be for an inch of water to kill you. Lack of money can take you down on all levels but it can’t kill you: You kill you. This is a story about being man, being a realized human being, a gentleman… with or without tons of money. Is it possible?

In some traditions, how one toils to make a living in order to support his/her family doesn’t really matter as long as it’s done ethically. The reward for the consistent, responsible work is the family itself—and then, after retirement, the time to spend studying and focusing on sacred texts. Though this paradigm might not be for everyone, it makes money clearly utilitarian, with few other considerations.

How much money do you need to hold your head up high, to stand up straight? There was a time in the United States not too long ago when the richest person in a company raked in 20 to 50 times what the lowest-paid person made. Consequently, there was a sense that nearly anyone, with hard work, ambition and persistence, could also be rich one day. Today that figure is closer to 300 to 500 times more dough. And thus, many consider that higher strata to be virtually unattainable.

Hence, a sort of resignation sets in, a serf-like indentured servitude vibe. No matter how much you ever make in your lifetime, the magnitude of wealth for a small but ever-present group tends to overshadow and neuter the money-making game. But maybe there’s an upside: the opportunity to contemplate another game entirely. Not a game without money, without earned swagger or without basic security and comfort—but a life less governed by money for money’s sake and its elusive hallucinatory highs.

Dude, do what you need to do, but do it for the right reasons, and if you see yourself becoming an asshole in relation to money, put it in check. Because being an asshole is an unhappy business that will lead you to an unhappy conclusion. In the words of Henny Youngman: “What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy you money.”

Learn more about author Loren-Paul Caplin here.

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