Sweet, Suffering Money
Poverty is not synonymous with suffering. In fact, having little money can be a relief. I contemplate my comfortable bank account, following my recently cashed biannual financial aid check. Now that I have money, I am obsessed by what I should do with it. Choices that I have not worried over in months or years once again plague me and I am afraid of making the wrong one. On the other hand, being so poor as to be constantly worrying about the source of one’s next meal causes a similar level of anxiety, but with a much less pleasant undertone. So money is suffering. And not having money is suffering. All life is suffering – the First Noble Truth.
Dharmic implications aside, something else strikes me – our society is actively structured to punish poverty. This goes beyond the mere suffering of poverty. Worrying about that next meal is hard enough, but this is more akin to what Buddhist’s call the suffering of suffering (dukkha–dukkha), the poverty of poverty. Not only do I struggle to pay for the next meal, but I also struggle to acquire it, spending twice or thrice the time simply traveling to buy my food. Not only do I receive my medical care from the local free clinic, but I fret over scrounging the bus fare to get there and easily spend four times as long in the waiting room as compared to a conventional doctor’s office. Naturally, I am thankful that I can find affordable food in my neighborhood and that other people’s generosity results in my continued health. However, this constant struggle to obtain some of the most basic necessities further limits my ability to provide for myself. It takes so much more time to be poor, time that could be otherwise spent caring for one’s family or working for a paycheck. The system is designed, whether by accident or malice, to perpetuate poverty by punishing it.
At this point, I starting writing a long-winded piece full of statistics about mass transit, commute times, government investment, and income distribution. If you want those statistics, they are readily available from the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Census Bureau. Have at it.
Statistics have little bearing on the dilemma facing me now, as is the case of many living just on or under the poverty line. Earlier this year, I wrote a post about learning what things we can live without and what things make an honestly positive contribution to our lifestyle. I now find myself contemplating a small electric scooter (the Roketa ES-44). I’m not even wondering if I can afford it (I can) but rather wondering whether or not I will find it worthwhile. I’ve rarely waffled so much on a single issue.
In this case my own desire to be content with what I have is causing a small welling of discontent to bubble up in my life. I want a simple life and I fear the addition of a vehicle, any vehicle, will complicate things. But isn’t my life already complicated by broken bicycles and insane bus schedules? So the difference? Seven-hundred dollars, seven miles, and forty minutes. I’ll be less the money, but gain the miles in range of freedom to travel and the minutes by spending less time in getting there. Oh, and there’s one other thing – self-sufficiency (or at least something approaching it). That’s what money can buy – freedom (or at least something approaching it). And that’s also what money takes away, because before I had it I was blissfully free of all these worries.
That’s the trouble with attachment. I’m attached to the idea of a simple life. I’m attached to the idea of freedom and self-sufficiency. I want both. But real happiness isn’t to be found in either of these ideas – because they’re just ideas. I’m waffling because I can’t figure out how to let them go and continue living my life and making everyday choices without them. Money plays a huge role in both ideas and I don’t have the courage to let go of that either. I sometimes think of how utterly brave the Buddha’s earliest follows were. They shaved their heads, donned robes, and set forth into a life of homelessness, begging daily for their food and never touching money. No doubt my current troubles are why they did so, but I just don’t see that happening for me. Mostly this is because such a life would be so full of anxiety, I don’t think I could bear it well enough to practice the way they did. Then again, perhaps that anxiety helped their practice. Who knows? But the rules about money have been relaxed for even modern monastics, given the changing world we now find ourselves in. To have just enough, but not too much seems to be the goal, but how do you know when you’re there?
That also leaves the question of the system that punishes poverty. This system also makes a simple life very difficult. It rewards consumerism and excess, practically congratulating it for being so clever as to exist. All those drivers out there, alone in their cars that could easily carry five. And me, sitting here and browsing on Etsy, discontent with the simple jeans and faded tees I’ve been wearing for so long. I want a simple life, but the consumer culture in which I’ve been raised has programmed me to believe I can buy it. Thus the current scooter dilemma, when what I really need is some insight or wisdom. That’s easy enough to come by, though, if you’ve got the money to buy yourself a month-long meditation retreat with some guru or other. If there are still buddhas wandering the countryside and teaching for free, we no longer know how to find them, or maybe they starved to death long ago because they didn’t have the money for even a gas station pretzel.
If you thought this was the point where I get to a point, either condemn money or praise it, buy the scooter or don’t, resolve all the inherent contradictions in life, then you’re bound to be disappointed. The First Noble Truth is a truth after all – life is suffering. Desire is certainly the cause of my current predicament, as the Second Noble Truth lays bare. But while the Third and Fourth Noble Truths are simple, the end and the path to the end of suffering, that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Money has the ability to make many things possible, but it cannot make anything wise.