Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pico Iyer on Money

Pico Iyer has an article in today’s New York Times on the simple life.

I'm not a great fan of Pico Iyer's. Have read some of his stuff. Did not leave a lasting impression.

This piece, in which he tells us he's found happiness in having less, not more, is a good example of why I have not found him particularly insightful. It's the kind of writing that allows those who agree with you to say "right on" and the very small number of people who don't agree with you to go their own way.

The life experience of others is frequently worth listening to. All of us are looking for others to show us the way. But other's experience has to be filtered through one’s own experience before it takes on any meaning. We share a great deal as individuals with the rest of humanity. But old men with advice are sometimes not all that different from vacuum cleaner or used car salesman. Useful as what they are selling might be, there are lots of ways to suck up dust and get from A to B.

Life, it seems to me, is way too complex for anyone to speak in general principles about how to live life. Not only are there the ages of man, where goals and reflections change according to one’s own level of maturity, but there are the seemingly infinite number of variations in the opportunities and constraints of time and place all controlling what you see and how you feel. It’s folly to attach formulas to the pursuit happiness, as far as I can tell. It seems far more likely to come to you while you’re working on other goals than when you’re plotting its acquisition. And I’m not sure that’s true for everybody, either.

One thing that always gets to me when I read that someone has concluded money isn’t everything is that if you take off the lid to see what’s in the pot, you’re almost certain to find they have been lucky financially to have lived above the threshold of poverty. It’s true you can live happily in poverty and many people do, but mostly when people like Pico Iyer speak of embracing the simple life they mean something like he does – that you don’t need to take four trips a year to New York. Three will do.

I’m old enough now too to think I can share my wisdom with the world. Give them little nudges, little suggestions. I'd start where the Greeks started, with “Know yourself." Know your strengths and weaknesses. To that I’d add be unscrupulously honest, even if it means hurting feelings. Select friends who are kind and trustworthy, not people who entertain you or get you to where today you want to go.

That's just the beginning of a long list. We could all makes lists of smart ideas, and I don’t want to suggest it’s a waste of time to do so. Beats robbing banks. And I know we can learn from our elders. But much of the time we think we are pursuing wisdom we're merely demonstrating loyalty to the tribe. Most of us believe what we want to believe and we want to believe what those around us want to believe. How often do we ask who the advice giver is and whether his or her truth is whole or partial?

Money advice is particularly iffy. A third generation member of a wealthy family is free to pursue Hittite linguistics or Renaissance music if he or she chooses. A kid in the ghetto is not, in almost all cases. Some people should be advised to marry for money. For some it's a great way to become generous and charitable and to cultivate a rich personality. Others would come to loathe themselves as whores.

What bothers me about Iyer’s advice is that it is only a partial truth and I’m not even sure he has the emphasis on the right part. “Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either,” he says. Fine. So what’s the conclusion? That we should stop the pursuit of money altogether? There’s a logical flaw in there of confusing sufficiency with necessity. Money may not be sufficient, but unless you’re the Dalai Lama or similarly constrained and supported, it is necessary. In celebrating the fact one has enough (for what else is Iyer really saying), one should not ignore the fact that poverty can lead to terrible unhappiness. Iyer is not giving universal advice; he’s giving bourgeois advice to the bourgeois.

“My heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted,” Iyer says, “But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down.” Oh really? Not sure?

And how does he back this up? His next sentence is, “The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends.”

He’s beating a dead horse here. Do people really need to hear repeated that money does not buy happiness? Do we really not understand the correlary – Nothing buys happiness, and money buys almost everything else?

I’m glad Iyer has found happiness in a simple life in Kyoto over a complex life in New York. I am never jealous of another's happiness because I don't for a minute believe it comes in limited quantities. But I also think you would not have to look too hard to find someone who has found a simple life in New York over a complex life in Kyoto. And any number of people who left a simple life behind for a much richer one elsewhere.

Some people like package deals. These people keep publishers of how-to books in business. Other people insist on endless exploration into the distinctiveness of their own lives and the lives of the interesting world around them. The former reach conclusions like “money isn’t everything.” The latter, I think, are more likely to say things like “I seem to know less and less every day. But I still can’t wait for the next day to begin so I can face the fascinating prospect of having to change all the conclusions I have come to thus far.”

I’ll take the second course, thank you.

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