Regular readers will know I struggle with money. The first time I wrote about it was here. About three months ago, I came across a creative prompt suggesting inviting Money to dinner and seeing what happened. I wanted to engage with it. I didn’t want to engage with it. I didn’t delete the article. It’s been sitting in the bottom of my Inbox sneering at me all these weeks. Finally, I decided to play with it …
I’ve unwillingly invited Money to lunch. She suggested it three months ago because she wants to see my new house. I’ve avoided it, tried not to think about it, even forgotten about it for days at a time, allowing the layers of my life to gently cover it, but then it shows up again, a small piece of grit in my psyche.
Finally I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to get it over with. She’s not going to get tired of waiting for me. She wants to see my new home, and she wants to have lunch. I can’t deal with the silent demand and the weight of her expectations any longer.
After all, it’s only a lunch, right? Two hours at the most.
Having made up my mind, I decide what will work best for me. I feel resentful, railroaded into doing something I don’t want to do. Why can’t I just say no and feel okay about it? Why do I feel I have to do this? I hate the feeling of being pushed, being badgered, being emotionally manipulated. Most of all, I hate how much I care about what she thinks. I hate my fear of her judgement.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
I don’t want to do this. I really, really don’t want to do this.
But I feel I have to. I can’t possibly tell the truth. It’s lunch, for God’s sake. Why do I make such a big drama out of everything? What’s with the dread? Why can’t I just be a normal person, get it over with?
I eat alone, so my round, glass-topped table is small and there’s only one chair. I’ll bring another chair in. Which would be most comfortable for Money? She’s a small person. The second chair is an antique, but it’s not as sturdy or large as the one I always sit in. Would it be a subtle compliment to give her that chair, or is it too old-fashioned to be comfortable and welcoming?
I can’t put flowers on the table because the cats will destroy them.
I have cloth napkins that match the tablecloth I’m using; that’s good. That looks nice.
My kitchen, where the table is, needs work. We haven’t been in this house long. The kitchen is outdated and battered, the formica countertops stained and pitted. The stainless steel sink has old drips of paint in it I can’t scrub away and haven’t taken the time to tackle more resolutely. The refrigerator is too big and partially blocks the pocket door into the bathroom. The litterboxes are tucked under a bench along one wall near the door leading to the entry; I don’t yet have a good place to set up the cats. Their food and water are on a boot tray on the floor in the kitchen. The floor is lovely old pine with wide boards, scratched, scarred, stained.
I try and fail to see my home, my kitchen, my kitchen table, through another’s eyes. It so clearly needs work, but, to my shame, I don’t have the money to get the work done. I may never have the money to get the work done. Yet I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, and this lovely old house as a refuge from the world. I love it. I don’t want to have to defend it or feel ashamed I can’t give it the care it needs right now. It’s clean, at least.
New Home, May 2022
Since this invitation was not my idea, and Money is not a friend, I don’t feel I must make a meal. I basically eat meat and high-quality animal fat. I don’t have the time, skill, or money to make an elaborate meal. I’m afraid to make something simple, like a big beef stew. Whatever I do, I’ll feel it’s not good enough. We agree, Money and I, to get a to-go order from a local restaurant. That way, if she’s disappointed, it’s got nothing to do with me. I make sure to insist I pay for my own order. I don’t want any favors from her.
I know the cats are going to be on the kitchen counter, in the sink, walking across the stovetop. It’s what they do. There’s no way to keep them off the counters. Believe me, I’ve tried it all. One of them will probably choose the time we’re sitting a few feet away to have a big, stinky BM in one of the litter boxes with lots of noisy scraping and covering while we’re eating. Then they’ll jump out, scattering litter across the floor, come into the living room adjacent to the kitchen, and scoot their dirty bottom across the carpet and try to cover that. I’m mortified, just thinking about it. Do I pretend it’s not happening, like when you’re talking to a cute guy and your leashed dog squats to take a dump? Do I get up from the meal, scoop out the litter box, spray the scoot mark with stain remover and sponge it away while it’s still fresh and visible? I can keep them off the table, at least, while we’re sitting there eating. But there might be cat hairs.
Who am I kidding? There will definitely be cat hairs.
What will we talk about? That one is not so hard. I’m good at drawing people out. Most people love talking about themselves. A few good questions can get the ball rolling and I can stay safely concealed.
When Money arrives, I greet her at the door, hoping she doesn’t notice the rotted sill and threshold, the damaged door frame, and the fact that the outside door has gaps underneath it large enough to admit a squirrel in search of winter housing. I take her through the lovely, shabby, wood-lined sun porch, another door that has clearly been kicked in at some point, and into a narrow little hallway leading to the kitchen door. Everything is clean, swept, mopped, scrubbed. I give Money the tour of my living space. The cats come to investigate. (Does Money even like cats? I don’t know. I don’t want to know in case the answer is no. If she doesn’t like cats, one is sure to jump in her lap.)
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
Money has picked up our order. I gather cutlery, plates, glasses. We sit down to eat. I am nervous, tense. The last thing I want to do is eat, but I do. I ask a couple of questions to get her talking and we chat in between bites. I wait for the curled lip, the sneer hidden within polite words, the fleeting contemptuous expression on Money’s face I know will be coming.
Money’s fingernails are unpainted. She’s wearing plain gold hoops in her ears. She’s dressed in unmatched leggings and a sweater. No makeup. I realize I expected something quite different …
And then my flow dried up and I came to a sudden stop, realizing I expected, in fact, my late maternal grandmother, who was always made up, bejeweled, well-coiffed, and wore little designer or custom-tailored (in Hong Kong) skirts and jackets and high heels. I expected her gold watch, expensive perfume, perfect manicure, and big, heavy rings. I expected her vivacious social cocktail chatter (gold monogrammed cocktail napkins). I expected her small brown eyes to turn mean, to tell me to act like a lady, to use my napkin, to keep my knees together. I expected the Jekyll-and-Hyde experience of watching her flirt, even when well into her 80s, and smile, and bat her nearly denuded eyelashes, still thick with mascara, with every male in the room and then the sharp little knife buried in a smiling comment or an aside about my looks, my conversation, my choices, and my behavior.
Gram, as we called her, had money. A lot of it. She was widowed young, inheriting considerable wealth from my grandfather. When her daughter, my mother, was divorced with two young children, Gram financed the family. By which I mean she demanded invoices, receipts, and bills, and gave Mom just enough to cover things and no more. No allowance. No lump sum. Mom had to ask specifically for every penny. Gram made her grovel. It was an exercise in humiliation. When Gram came to visit she hounded Mom about her marriage (Gram hated my father), her divorce, her stupidity and bad judgement. Mom went back to school to get a degree in order to get a job and support her children. We became latch key kids. I was assigned to care for my younger brother; we both were assigned to care for the animals, though the horses were sold during the divorce, taking the core of Mom’s happiness with them and leaving only bitterness and grief behind.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
Every night, after I went to bed, I listened to Mom cry while she sat at her desk in her bedroom down the hall and dealt with the bills and finances or did coursework. I was often hungry because I felt guilty about eating food Mom would have to ask Gram to help pay for. I was 11 years old. Yet Mom remained loyal, thanking Gram for her grudging support, telling everyone how lucky we were to have her mother, who loved us, to help out. I don’t think she dared do anything else. Mom cared for her mother until the end of her life, when she died in a nursing home in her 90s.
Only one time did Mom break down in front me. “I’ve never pleased that woman one single day in my life,” she sobbed. It was true. She didn’t. And she tried every single damn day. I never pleased Gram a day in my life, either, but I didn’t try. I did not love my grandmother.
That moment of truth was never referred to again. By either of us. I’m sure, had I tried to talk about it later, Mom would have denied saying it. The world, especially her male relatives, saw Gram as charming, entertaining, gregarious, and generous. She could be all those things. But could also be abusive, toxic, selfish, and manipulative. She became (I discover), in my mind, the face and personification of Money. Money weaponized. Money withheld. Money rather than love or true connection. Money as a tool for power, control, and shame.
Every dollar of “help” Gram gave us was, as far as I was concerned, soaked in Mom’s blood and tears.
So, I’ve had a difficult relationship with money. Surprise, surprise. This exercise revealed to me the roots of my self-sabotage and conflicted feelings about “success,” which in my family meant plenty of money. In many ways I feel very successful, but I’ve always struggled financially. The work I’ve done and loved (being a librarian (yes, I have a degree); working with animals, children, the elderly; teaching swimming; lifeguarding; working in the public school system; working in hospitals; storytelling; and medical transcription) are not high-paying jobs in terms of money. The work of my heart, writing, has so far not earned me a single penny. All this contribution, all this creativity, all this love and care for animals and people and books, doesn’t count and is a matter of shame because I haven’t made much money. How sad and messed up is that?
My car is falling to pieces. My house needs work. I buy clothes at thrift stores. I’m a minimalist. I could use more money. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. It would help. A lot. But it wouldn’t fix everything I struggle with in life. I’m clear about that, too. And money is not love or success. Money is a tool, one I’ve mostly refused to consider learning to use. So I haven’t. What’s the point? I don’t have any! I’ll never have any. I don’t want Money to come to lunch because it’s wrong to need it and I do. I’m certain I don’t deserve it, because I’ve failed the family expectations, but I need it. Convoluted. Tricky. My personification of money in this exercise exposes a lifetime of shame about needing money, or any other sort of support or resource, to be honest. Which is ridiculous. Because the less money I have, the more I need it. And the more ashamed I feel. And so on.
At the same time, I’m proud of my contributions to the world. I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had. I like to work. I like to volunteer. I have no plans to retire. I’ve been richly rewarded for my service in far more important and meaningful ways than monetarily. I’m proud of my self-sufficiency.
But those things won’t pay down the equity loan or fix the car. They won’t pay my bills.
Maybe I’ve never clearly seen Money at all, because I can’t look past my grandmother. Maybe Money doesn’t wear her face, but another I’ve never glimpsed. Maybe it’s time to grow up and out of that old anger and rejection of anything Gram stood for …
So this is the story of when Money came to lunch.
- If you imagine an issue or feeling you struggle with as a person, what would that look like? What issue or feeling would you start with?
- What feelings are attached to your experience of money?
- How do you define success?
- What contribution are you most proud of? Is it the one that made the most money?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
For part 1 of this post, please go here.
I’ve been exploring this quote from Priscilla Shirer:
“Unity does not mean sameness. It means oneness of purpose.
It’s interesting, how a one-line quote can trigger so much contemplation and so many questions.
Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash
I’ve had two conversations with two different friends in the last week about how hopeless we feel to bring about positive change in the current political and social climate because people in general seem unable to unify and work together. A clear leader has not stepped forward. We are increasingly split into factions and too busy with in-groups and out-groups to step back and consider the whole picture.
This is not an accident. Unity is a distinct social advantage and a powerful strategy. It’s also apolitical, which is easy to see on the nightly news. Traditionally large groups are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Small groups, by means of forced teaming and other manipulations, are usurping power from established organizations. Current political leaders on both sides of the aisle are losing their followers. As traditional boundaries and frameworks dissolve, chaos and confusion sweep us into a new national and political reality, and it is not unity.
And then there’s capitalism. What we all have in common is an assault on our personhood, the subsummation of a human being into a cash commodity. In other words, how much money are we worth? Can we be manipulated into spending money or persuaded to prostitute for marketers and algorithms, politicians and bloated corporations?
Here, let me bend over and pick up that “free” soap for you.
For years, various people have told me I will never be “successful” if I don’t get on Facebook.
For years, I’ve resisted that assertion. Who made that rule? What is the evidence for that? Who benefits from me being on social media when it’s something I absolutely do not want to do?
I am fortunate to have a central pillar of support for my writing in a close relationship. That person is on FB and consistently, week after week, posts links to my work on his page. A couple of weeks ago, upon posting links to my latest Substack posts, FB threatened to suspend him. Why? Because the image that happened to be grabbed with one of those linked posts was a black and white picture of a nude pregnant woman. Nudity. Horrors. (You can go look at the pic here. Scroll down. You’ll know it when you see it.)
So, here’s the thing. An algorithm did that. It was instantaneous.
I’m not writing for algorithms. I’m writing for people.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
The hypocrisy staggers me. One can spread whatever mis- and disinformation one likes on FB’s platform. Stalkers and doxxers use it. Hate groups and insurrectionists plan to overthrow the government and kill people on it. Ideologues of all stripes churn out toxic poison on a daily basis. Bots and bad actors, both overseas and home grown, are free to roam, and every single keystroke users make is carefully recorded and mined so everyone can receive exactly the information they want to hear along with advertising they’re most likely to respond to.
The platform has grown and grown, become richer and richer, more and more influential, and less and less about connecting people on a healthy individual level. It’s now a sprawling, unmanageable mess. Users are leaving, and the company cannot adequately police and monitor itself or the activity taking place on the platform. So they look for ways to get even bigger and make more money (by making it more addictive and persuading the culture at large everyone needs an account to be “successful”) and write more algorithms to deal with “inappropriate” content (as defined by the company).
Nudity has been judged as inappropriate content, and because of an image grab over which neither the person posting nor I had any control (there were several other non-naked images in those posts), links to my content were deleted and suspension threatened.
That’ll teach us.
What it taught me is I’ve been right all along. Right to create my own blog and website. Right to find a platform like Substack that does not censor my work. Right to write for readers rather than clicks, stats, and algorithms.
My friend on FB has undoubtedly done much to get my work out there and find readers. No question about it, and I’m grateful every week for his efforts on my behalf.
On the other hand, if the price of “success” is participation on FB, it’s too high. I’m not interested. Not even a little bit. In fact, I feel vaguely I must be doing something absolutely right in order to be banned by an algorithm. I tried to squeeze out a tear of fear and self-pity, but I couldn’t manage it. There’s an ever-growing club of thoughtful, intelligent, science-based, talented people who have been suspended or banned (or both) from FB. I’d be proud to hang with them and I’m glad to read them elsewhere.
What does this have to do with unity? Well, FB was originally about connection, yes? First it was a dating hub. (All right, a getting laid hub. Whatever.) Then it was a way to maintain connections over long distance. Then it grew into a monster that presented every user with a way to maximize a “friends” list while allowing bullying, silencing, stalking, deplatforming, identity theft, hacking, and other behavior people feel they can get away with behind the privacy of their screen and keyboard.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
Where is the unity now? What is our oneness of purpose? Oh, right. We’re unified in being income streams for FB. Lucky old FB.
FB lives because we animate it. Never forget that. We’re the ones who decide no one can be “successful” without it.
Oneness of purpose is a great phrase, but what does it really mean, and how do we get there? Is there any such thing as oneness of purpose anymore? Is our world too complicated for that? Can we come up with a simple overarching statement of purpose, or are we too tangled up in our ridiculous labels and ideologies, too distracted by our outrage and all the people wrong on FB and other social media, to raise our heads and look at the bigger picture?
Do we want our culture to be run by entities like FB that pay lip service to “friends” and “connection” but in actuality work to make money off discord, fear, and disconnection? Do we want our country to be run by authoritarians and corporations? What’s stronger, a handful of small sticks bound together or a handful of splinters? We the people are not powerful enough to make sweeping change individually. Our power, the power of democracy, is in unity of purpose. If we lose our ability and willingness to unify, we’re at the mercy of whatever bloated, narcissistic, moronic, power-mad, lying clown and his train of minions and hangers-on comes along.
And that’s worked out so well.
What I know is I’m writing for you, whoever you are, reading this page. I’m sitting in my green suede chaise with a cat above my right shoulder on the back, the blinds drawn against the heat, the laptop in my lap, writing for you. I’m not writing for FB or an algorithm. I’m not battering you with advertising. I’m not collecting your data. I’m not writing clickbait. I’m not thinking about success, beyond writing a good post, editing it, and publishing it today. Because that’s what I do on Saturdays. I’m not thinking about the money I’ll make, because all my content both here and on Substack is free at this point.
I have no interest in what you’re wearing, what color you are, to whom you pray, how you vote, if you’re vaccinated, what your biological sex or gender expression is. I don’t care where you live. I don’t care how much money you make or have. I don’t care who you love, but I hope one person you love is yourself. I don’t care how old you are, or what you eat, or what your health status is, or what language and culture you were born into.
If you’re reading this, I’m writing for you. If you find anything of value in my work, I’ve succeeded and we’ve made a connection.
There’s no need to hit a like button for an algorithm.
On the other hand, if you find an artistic black-and-white photograph of a nude pregnant woman offensive, you might appreciate FB’s censorship of “inappropriate” material, and you probably won’t enjoy my work.
And that’s okay, too. You won’t find me polluting the pages of Facebook with my obscene pornography.
Those of you who come to me through C. Leo’s Facebook page may want to consider subscribing directly through Harvesting Stones and/or Substack. I don’t know if he’ll continue to try to post links to me and risk suspension or not.
I’m going to continue to write what I write and use the images I like. I’ll let other people worry about whether I’m a “success” or not.
My oneness of purpose: To connect, to think critically, to explore, to question, to discuss, to create, to make a positive contribution.
Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.
It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.
“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.
The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?
Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?
I’ve written a series of posts about happiness, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, PhD. I went back and reread those posts.
Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?
Are ordinary people happy?
Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?
I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.
Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.
(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)
I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.
Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.
But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.
It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow it and take the time to be present in the moment.
When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.
Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.
The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.
Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.
Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.
Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?
That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?
Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.
Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?
But we could change our minds.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Food for thought from Seth Godin: Productivity is not measured in drama.
Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash
Sometimes life seems to me like a giant factory. The owners are busy manufacturing fear and drama day and night, making money hand over fist. We the people sit in little cubicles, brainwashed and manipulated by the factory owners, responding to fear and drama stimuli for all we’re worth (and much more than we’re worth, monetarily speaking) and providing a gigantic, endless river of profit to the few at the top. After a few months in the factory, we’re promoted; we’ve learned to create fear and drama all by ourselves! Now we can model good business practice for the newbies.
Fear and drama. Two top money-makers. Naturally, a capitalist culture would be constructed to relentlessly promote them, and any vehicle for increasing fear and drama would have enormous lucrative potential. Hence, staggering financial power and influence in the form of social media, conspiracy theory centers and advertising.
Information (facts) and critical thinking mitigate fear, so let’s demonize them and weaken public education so such heretical things are not taught.
Breaking our addiction to stuff and stimulation, instant gratification and validation, might allow us to realize how hollow and expensive those addictions are, so let’s not give people a single second in which to be tranquil and quiet.
Changing our belief that having and doing are more important than being, that doing more faster will lead to greater productivity and thus more money (with which we can buy more) will hurt the economy. Let’s make that unpatriotic, unpopular, and offensive.
Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash
Let’s emphasize and support division, outrage, hatred, bigotry, procrastination, ignorance, catastrophizing, gaslighting, urgency, “alternative facts”, and disempowerment. Let’s prioritize making a profit.
Let’s train the culture to demand drama, and richly reward those who disseminate the most drama to the public. Let’s give those people power, authority, awards, and our money. Let’s give them our time and attention, our applause, loyalty, and praise. They entertain us. They tell us what we want to hear. They will be our saviors in a terrifying world. Without them, we’ll lose everything. (Starting with our guns.)
Manufactured drama. Manufactured fear. As though life doesn’t have enough organically grown drama and fear.
But one can never have enough money, right? And fear and drama are sound investments. Better than blue chip stocks, because they perform best in the worst of times.
At some point, we hitched drama onto productivity and conflated them. Godin reminds us productivity and drama are not the same or even related, unless it’s an inverse relationship.
We don’t have to choose crisis. We can build slack into our lives, quiet, unplugged time, time away from a screen. We don’t have to feed drama or get involved with it. We certainly don’t have to pass it on. We don’t have to attach to fear. We can unhook from fearful media, take our time and attention away from it.
Fear and drama don’t help us effectively manage our lives or make positive contributions. They don’t make us more humane or better problem solvers. They don’t help us find true love or good health. They’re neither creative nor connecting. Urgency is not high-quality fuel for life, and it doesn’t help us make empowered choices.
If we want to be productive, we need to disengage from fear and drama.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
All my life, when I tackle a problem or a challenge, if I don’t succeed I assume it’s about me. I’m not fill-in-the-blank-enough. I’m a failure. So, I work harder. I perseverate. I obsess. I refuse to give up. I try, and I try, and I go on trying until I’m used up, and then I try some more.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
Every now and then I get jarred into a wider perspective and I suddenly understand some problems can’t be solved. Some challenges can’t be mitigated. Sometimes the change I’m seeking is not possible. This happened recently with a short note from Seth Godin in my Inbox titled “The Win-Win Fallacy.”
I’ve studied power dynamics for several years now, as regular readers know. One of my most important filters in evaluating others is whether they come from a power-over (win-lose) or power-with (win-win) perspective. This discernment is not necessarily loaded with judgement. In some cases, power-over is both effective and appropriate. In terms of personal relationships, though, I’m not eager to engage with people working for power-over.
The invisible problem (to me) with this filter is I haven’t thought of it as a continuum. I’ve thought of it as two isolated positions. You’re one, or you’re the other. (You’re with me or you’re against me.)
I abhor black-and-white thinking. Way too much of it in the world. It’s always a trap, and it always feels manipulative. Maybe one of the reasons I dislike it so much is that I’m so prone to it myself. It sneaks up on me, completely invisible, and I’m chagrined when I realize I’ve fallen into it. Again. Aargh!
These few sentences from Godin point out many problems don’t have a win-win solution, especially problems that have been around a while. If there was a win-win, someone would have found it. Think about gun control, for example. (I know, I don’t want to think about it anymore, either, but our children are going to keep dying in schools until we figure it out.)
Maybe it’s not that I’m too stupid to find the win-win in any given situation. Maybe there isn’t one.
Maybe some problems can only be solved on a continuum of sort-of-win, sort-of-lose, or even definitely win-lose, at least in the short term. Maybe, as Godin points out, what we should work for is something better than we have now, a situation in which most people are happier than they are with the current status quo. This, by the way, is what’s known as compromise.
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Time changes things. I’ve often lost in the short term but won in the long term, or vice versa. Winning and losing are relative positions, a snapshot of one moment in time. They can and do change. (A private prayer of thanksgiving here.)
We are obsessed with winning in this culture. We’ll kill others and/or ourselves in order to be right. We’ll lie, cheat, and steal to ensure we win. We elevate winners with power, money, and authority. Some people are unable to accept losing anything, ever.
People who operate from this perspective are unable to discuss, negotiate, or compromise. They have no interest in the price of their win, as long as they get it. They don’t care who loses, who suffers, who dies. They don’t care about justice. The win is all. Nothing else matters.
Then there are people like me who are convinced justice (always assuming we can identify and agree upon what’s just!) is desirable and achievable and must prevail at any cost. I’m equally obsessed with the belief that winning doesn’t matter a damn and people who think winning is power are pathetic. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What matters is working together to figure out the greatest good for everyone, for all life on Planet Earth, most of which is not human, by the way.
But what if there’s not a win-win, in either the short or the long term? We’re losing animal species every day. Maybe certain kinds of human thinking and behavior should also go extinct. Maybe we need losers so the majority wins.
So the majority wins, not the most powerful minority. Just to be clear. And that means sometimes we need to be willing to lose something for the greater good. A small sacrifice. What a concept.
It’s tricky. I don’t want it to be tricky. I want it to be clear, because that’s easier. Win-lose, or win-win.
But I see it’s not clear. It is a continuum. Lots of shades of grey in there, lots of ways to win and lose at once, and even that changes over time.
On a purely personal level, I need to stop making myself and everyone else crazy with my neurotic obsession with absolutely equal power, a perfectly equal win. I do believe it can happen. I believe it’s possible. On the other hand, Godin has me convinced it’s not always possible. If I’ve tried as hard and as long as I can, maybe the problem isn’t me at all. Maybe the only solution(s) are somewhere between the pure and saintly win-win and the power-grabbing win-lose.
Life is complicated.
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