Why are we so fixated on money? It appears to be the measure of everything we do. It is the reason we get up every morning and start working. It seems to make our world go round.
Even the Leader of the Opposition was in full flow recently, attacking the former vice-president. He dismissed him as a non-entity who had been plucked from obscurity. The VP had been, he said with a huge sneer on his face, a mere academic who was then driving a Volkswagen. His honourable colleagues all sniggered and nodded vigorously; truly he had been a nobody, they seemed to say. The fact that the man had then been an upstanding professor living within his humble means, driving a car that he could afford with his own money, was not worthy of comment. The fact that he was engaged in a reputable profession was insignificant. The thing worth deriding was that he had nothing, and therefore was nothing. Far better to be a rich thief than a poor teacher, was the implicit message.
This national fixation produces some very ugly results. It leads to a spiral of grasping behaviour. Greed cascades down. What did our new legislators do as soon as they arrived in parliament? They increased their salaries. Seeing this, what did the delegates to the National Constitutional Conference do as soon as they arrived at the Bomas of Kenya? They tried to have their allowances increased. Seeing this, what did the drivers of the delegates do? They tried to argue that they, too, are entitled to handsome daily allowances – simply for sitting around all day!
I sometimes think that each and every Kenyan spends a large part of his or her day thinking about money. The labourer dreams about the small rural plot he wants to buy. The secretary dreams about owning a car and not having to suffer the daily indignity of riding in matatus. The up-coming executive wants to be able to wear designer labels, and make sure everyone knows it. The chief executive revels in being the Big Man who has rural relatives dancing to his every tune. The high-flying professional dreams of the holiday home where he can entertain and impress his friends. The self-made businessman has his eye on the latest four-wheel drive vehicle, to add to his stable of five cars. Everyone wants more. And more. And more.
Hang on, you say, what’s wrong with that? We’re all aspiring, aren’t we? This desire for material gain is the fuel that lights the economy. We wish to escape from poverty. We seek better, more comfortable lives for ourselves. If we didn’t, we would stagnate. More money would make us all happier.
Would it really? Stop and think for a moment. When was the last time you met a rich person who was happy? It is an unfortunate fact that riches only bring new stresses in their wake. When you buy that gleaming new car, you will worry incessantly about getting the paintwork scratched. When you move into that palatial home, you will spend many a night peering out into the darkness to make sure no one is climbing over the wall. When you fill that bank account with millions, you will lie awake worrying about not getting the best return on your money.
When I look at the faces of the people who have all these things, I rarely see a contented person. If anything, people’s idea of ‘comfort’ seems to change dramatically as income goes up. The Toyota you were driving when you earned one hundred thousand shillings a month simply will not do when you earn five hundred thousand. The comfortable house in South ‘C’ is absolutely out of the question once you’re promoted. And as you move up the income scale, even having just one car and one house becomes laughable – you must have many, many cars, parked in many, many houses. All your new friends do!
I have seen people who dream only of moving up the money ladder. When I’m promoted and earn as much as so-and-so, they say, I’ll be happy. When eventually they are promoted, and earn twice as much money as they did, does contentment follow? Not at all! They learn of another person who earns even more in a similar job, and in an instant, their peace of mind is shattered. They stay on the never-ending treadmill, where they will waste many, many years.
The stress never goes; it actually intensifies, and happiness becomes a dimmer and dimmer prospect. And then you die, with plenty in the bank and nothing to take with you. Will the ordeals of accumulating more and more money seem worth it to you on your deathbed? Will you, in fact, even think of money and possessions as you leave this mortal coil?
So the poor man dreams of his little plot and his first car, and is wretched for it. The rich man dreams of his third home and his retirement plan, and is wretched for it. Ancient wisdom tells us: wretched are all those motivated by the fruits of their actions, for they will never taste them. We should attach ourselves to our work, not to its outcomes. We should give one hundred per cent of ourselves to our endeavours, not to the prospect of gain. We must take joy in a job well done, not in the rewards that we hope will ensue. That way happiness lies.
And here’s the paradox: if we are able to focus on our skills and effort, the reward will automatically ensue, as a natural by-product. The minute we stop focusing on money, money will come tumbling in. The less we want it, the more we’ll enjoy it. The more we desire it, the more troubled our enjoyment of it.
If we are going to spend our entire existence worrying about money, real life will pass us by. True joy lies not in things that can be taken away; it lies in that which is given freely to all, and in great abundance. It is in observing the bird soaring in the sky; in listening to the child’s gurgling laugh; in giving love freely to all who we meet. It is in engaging constantly in random acts of kindness. It is in smiling at strangers and touching their lives in the smallest way. It is in living each moment as it comes to us, not in dreaming of future prosperity.
It is money madness that produces the Goldenbergs. You can see the lunacy in the eyes of those at the centre of it: even billions weren’t enough for them. Yet, in some measure, the sickness is in us all. Let us heed the advice of the truly wise. Paraphrasing Jerome K. Jerome’s words written a century ago: pack lightly for the journey of life, pack only what you need; search not for foolish luxuries; look not at what your fellow travellers have; take time to think as well as to work; take time to drink in life’s sunshine.
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