One morning recently, I went in to wake my 13 year old daughter for school. She slowly sat up and said ‘I had the worst dream! I dreamed that we didn’t have enough money to pay our mortgage, so we had to move in with Grandma and Grandpa. Only, their house in my dream wasn’t as it is in real life; it was all run down and horrible.’
This daughter has always been very aware of money and possessions, even when she was little. One could argue that it is good that she worry about money; it shows that she doesn’t take money for granted, and understands its value.
However, consider this: a few months ago, we were talking as a family about two teenage sisters we knew who had lost their mother to a terminal illness. We were expressing sadness at the tragedy that had happened to this family. Then my daughter said ‘Well, at least they’re rich.’
‘What?!’ I cried. ‘What does that have to do with it? Having money can’t replace their mother!’
‘Yea, I know they’re miserable,’ she said. ‘But I’m just saying that it’s better to be miserable and rich than miserable and poor.’
What’s that line from Apollo 13? ‘Houston, we have a problem.’
Materialism and Happiness
In my opinion, my daughter’s comments show an unhealthy attitude toward money. On the surface, this attitude is characterized, among other things, by a fear of a ‘reversal of fortune’ – which is natural, and understandable. Yet, this fear seems to be based upon a deeper belief that financial status and material possessions (such as the kind of house one has) are an essential part of one’s happiness, or even one’s self-worth.
If I have diagnosed her attitude correctly, then one thing I can say in her defense is that she is certainly not alone. The belief that the money we earn and what we own gives us happiness and value as human beings not only pervades our western culture – it seems to define it. We do have opinion makers telling us from time to time that we have too much ‘stuff’. Yet, that doesn’t stop us from centering our lives around acquiring more.
But beyond that, we live in a society where we honor, and even reverence people based on wealth. People are paid in our economy based on what the market deems to be the worth of their job to society. So, your ‘value’ is, quite literally, tied to your salary. The banker and the lawyer are somehow much more important to society than the teacher – or indeed, the parent (who gets paid nothing as a parent).
The association of money with esteem and happiness is not some abstract philosophy that seems remote from the here and now; on the contrary – speaking for my own family at least – it affects us deeply. It seeps into our daily lives and colors my children’s judgments of ourselves and others.
For instance, recently my husband and I bought our first home. We loved it the moment we saw it, and our children loved it as well. We were grateful and happy. Then, some new friends invited us to their house – which was much bigger. All of a sudden, our house was no longer an object of adoration. Indeed, our children now felt somewhat ashamed of our house, and ashamed of us as parents that we could not afford something bigger and better. The family with the bigger house was ‘good’, and we were not as good.
Stoicism: the Antidote to Materialism, and to Modern Life
If you have suffered similar condemnations by your children, the good news is that philosophy can offer some real help is countering this materialism. In particular, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism gives a comforting perspective on the proper place of money and possessions in our lives.
Stoicism, however, isn’t just a philosophy about money. Really, it’s a philosophy about happiness.
The Stoics taught that happiness cannot be found in ‘external’ things. External things include wealth and possessions, but also things like health, reputation, fame, position in life, etc. These things are all changeable, but beyond that, they are not entirely within our control. And for the Stoics, happiness is achieved only when we focus on things that are within our control.
As it turns out, the things we can control are quite few in number. According to the philosopher Epictetus, these things are our perspective on life, our opinions, our desires, and our actions. These are things that are ‘free’ for us, precisely because we have control over them. However, external things not ‘free’ for us, and if we try to pursue them as if we have total control over them, then we will be frustrated, depressed, and we will blame other people for what happens to us.
Because our thoughts and our actions are the only things we can really control, it is in these things that moral value is found. We are not ‘good’ if we are rich or famous or well-liked or experience pleasure. We are good when we control our passions and our actions according to reason – in other words, when we think, say and do the right thing.
For the Stoics, as for Aristotle, reason is what characterizes human beings as distinct from other living things. The Stoics, however, stressed that reason is the ‘divine’ element in man: that is what we have in common with the gods – not our possessions. Therefore, the aim in life is to follow reason ‘seriously, vigorously, calmly’, without being distracted by things of a lesser value. The stoic Marcus Aurelius taught that if we do nothing ‘contrary to justice’, and if we express ‘heroic truth in every word and sound’ which we utter, then we will be happy.
Thus, since happiness lies in being good and doing good, our lives should be simple, rather than characterized by a pursuit of the unnecessary, which makes us stressed.
The Stoics had a humble realism at the core of their philosophy. Along with arguing that there are very few things within our control, they also argued that we should accept all things that happen to us willingly and peacefully. Human life is short, everyone’s corner of the world is small, and human things are ‘ephemeral and worthless’. Yet, as rational beings, we are not worthless. Our thoughts and actions matter. So, we must embrace what comes, and live our lives each day to the best of our ability.
Stoicism and Parenting
Stoicism seems to me to be an imminently workable philosophy for family life. People are important and our actions are important. What we have, what positions we achieve in school or work, and what happens to us, are less important. Our crazy schedules, material insecurities, and insatiable desires can be tempered, or even jettisoned, with this perspective. However, once again, you will be a countercultural parent if you can achieve and live by this perspective.
Ironically, as I write this post from where we live in San Diego, fires are burning all over San Diego county. School has been cancelled (California’s version of a ‘snow day’), and evacuation from our home is enough of a possibility that we are packing our bags, just in case. My children are unsettled and nervous, despite my reassurances. ‘What if our house burns down?’ ‘What about my stuff?’
Admittedly, worrying about the disaster of having one’s house burn down cannot be compared fairly to the vice of materialism. I understand their fears. But this does seem to be an opportunity to teach that whatever happens – whatever we lose – we still have what matters. We have our faith, our hope and our love. We have our capacity to be good, and to do good. That’s enough for true happiness.