Being focused on working with others to foster collective prosperity means we need to consider a couple of additional concepts to guide us: acting with justice and fairness, and engaging in mutuality and co-operation. For our purposes, we’ll define justice as the capacity to see something as it truly is, independently of other’s perceptions or biases, and then acting in accordance with that knowledge. It is the ultimate guide to ensure fairness. Our ability to act with justice may lead us to give everyone equal amounts of something, or different amounts, depending on the true need. For example, in Maine, every child born in the state equally receives $500 into a college savings account. In Maryland, $500 in matching funds can be accessed each year for the college savings account, but how much you need to put in first to get that match depends on your income – those who make the least put in $25 to get $500, those in the middle contribute $100 to get $500, while those who make the most put in $250 (and only get $250, not $500). Issues of justice also come into play when we determine who even gets to know about these offers, and what hurdles they need to overcome to access that funding: learning about the program, having a computer and internet access to set up the account and literacy levels to navigate the process, having a checking account and the amount saved to make the initial contribution, trusting that the money will be there and not stolen, etc. Those with privilege would find it relatively easy to meet those requirements to access the funds, while many who have been oppressed would find it quite challenging – yet, they are the ones who ostensibly would need and benefit from the matching moneys the most (and are least supported to even attend college). Justice then becomes a guide for the process, continually used to help us both reflect on current reality and inform what would be the next step, the means, and what changes to be made, to achieve the end goal of collective prosperity.
To engage in mutuality and co-operation first entails recognizing that we’re all in this world together, and then using that understanding in the designs and activities of our economic lives. Earlier in the book, I introduced the concept of financial interdependence. When we think and act from a place of mutuality and co-operation, we develop a healthy relationship of interdependence. This is the place of moderation between dependency and independence. View these two as opposite extremes on a continuum, both of which are characterized by selfishness, self-centeredness. When we’re children, we’re dependent upon parents to do and provide for us. This is the first extreme. This is the area we inhabit when, as Elizabeth Gilbert observed, we infantilize our selves, looking to others to supply our financial needs and handle our obligations. A child, by their nature, is selfish. They have yet to develop the emotional awareness of the world around them and don’t appreciate what impact their actions and contributions have. The healthy progression of their development leads them out of that state. The degree to which they successfully do so however depends on how well the environment around them nurtures the process: parents, school, faith community, extra-curricular groups and mentors. If parents don’t let the child start doing things and experiencing consequences for themselves, they’ll never learn: such as how to handle credit, budget money for needs and the unexpected, or take ownership of their professional path. To varying degrees, as adults, people remain reliant, dependent even, upon their parents, the state, or their jobs for assistance with their financial well-being, whether providing income or providing any of the myriad expenses.
Further along the continuum, closer to the middle, are those who have already developed a strong sense of generosity (a good thing), but haven’t yet figured out the healthy balance of true interdependence. For the most part, they maintain a degree of self-sufficiency. After all, they ARE earning a paycheck and have their own home. But they’re living paycheck to paycheck, by which I mean, if they did not receive their pay this month, they would not have sufficient reserves to cover the month’s expenses. (Or come up with $400 in a pinch, or $2000 to address an emergency… take your pick.) When they receive their pay, it is spent immediately, or within a week or two. However, there is a difference in how they relate to other’s financial lives: they’re generous. They help. It is this quality which is important, but is not sufficiently developed, to be wielded in a healthy manner.
There’s two pieces of what it means to be healthy in this respect: first, that in being generous, they do not jeopardize their own financial well-being; and second, they do not enable other’s dependency, when they themselves are capable of financial interdependence. To give without receipt will inevitably lead to deprivation for the donor. A tree that only gives fruit but does not take in nutrients (much of which come from its own decomposed fruit and leaves) will eventually become barren. A person who continually sacrifices their time, and energy, and service without caring for themselves will eventually experience burnout emotionally, and illness physically. How much use are you to others then? On an airplane, if the cabin pressure drops, the oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling. At that point, you are instructed to put the mask on YOURSELF first, and then on the person next to you, second. This is not selfishness, but wisdom. If you black out from lack of oxygen, of what good can you be to either yourself or the child sitting with you? By putting it on yourself, you ensure that you are around a long time to help those on both your left and right. Two things happen when you stop jeopardizing your own financial well-being while helping others. You don’t become a statistic yourself, forced to seek the services others seek because you don’t have enough money anymore to cover the electric bill, eviction notice, or food. That’s the physical part. The mental part is that you’re not harboring worries and anxiety over how you’ll make the payments and come up with the needed cash. You can simply get to your self-actualizing, social-actualizing work, instead of being distracted by financial concerns. (Incidentally, this is why many employee assistance programs now include financial counseling of some type – because employers see how worker’s personal financial distractions negatively affect productivity.)
At the other extreme, is independence. In the popular discourse is the idea that we should become financially independent. It’s logical, right? The opposite of dependence is independence. As you recognize that your being dependent on someone or something isn’t healthy, is hindering your progress, is more painful in itself than detaching and embracing the pain of growth, you think that independence is the goal, the correction. Except with this new goal, you replace one extreme for another. It is the pendulum’s swing from one side to the other side, blowing right past the place of healthy balance.
What’s wrong with independence? It too is selfish, but in an isolating way. Money and resources are hoarded, wealth is concentrated, and life becomes stagnant. There’s no joy here either. Many are the wealthy people who can buy anything they want, and are miserable and spiritually deprived. Thus, it’s easier for the camel to enter the eye of the needle than for them to get into heaven. The rub here though, is that the defining characteristic isn’t the amount of wealth in their accounts. It’s their attachment to it. There are plenty of others who have immense amounts of wealth, generated by providing great products or services, and then they keep some for themselves, but then also spend generously on the world around them. They are not aloof from society. They are not self-serving, but seek to serve and provide others with opportunities at livelihood. They contribute the means by which government and non-profits carry out their activities. They willingly redistribute a portion of their wealth, to ensure the needs of all are met. (And they’re pretty humble about it, which is why you often don’t hear about their works.) They recognize and thrive on interdependence.
Mutuality, co-operation, and the resulting interdependence should be the goal. It is the natural order of things. Look at the human body: when the body is healthy, the cells, organs, and systems all work together. Each has a function, which is meaningless in isolation. It has to contribute its function for the benefit of the whole, and as the whole is made healthy, it benefits in return. A given cell or organ that decides to mooch off the others becomes a drain on resources that would be more effectively distributed throughout the body as a whole. Or an organ that decides to hoard blood becomes bloated and ill itself, while depriving the limb next to it. Each of these elements has different needs it requires, while also essential functions to perform. These functions are not carried out in isolation, but in harmony with the others. They carry out these functions and in response to the outside environment, do so in a dynamic manner, adjusting and reacting with flexibility. All this happens to not just keep the body alive, but with higher purpose: to live, to prosper, to grow in all the domains of human and social existence.
As a single human race, there is a long arc trend toward mutuality and co-operation. To be sure, we have hiccups along the way. But to the extent that we can align ourselves and our decisions and our efforts to work with others, in mature, healthy, financially interdependent relationships characterized by both contributing and benefiting, your original pursuit to get your financial life put together takes on a whole new meaning. It will require finding and creating opportunities to do so at every level: the self, the family, the group and community, institution, and (dare I suggest?) nationally and internationally. But, this engagement fosters strength and security, begets joy and prosperity and contentment, because now we are carrying out our individual purposes – in short, to be of service to others – in the context of the environment around us.
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