My heart is breaking. And I know that I am not alone. Can anyone honestly say that they are encouraged by how we are treating each other? I write a column about money and we use money as a means to make ourselves feel secure or comfortable. If we don’t feel either, how does money fit in?
Life is a messy thing. It never goes the way we planned. We have great happiness mixed with sorrow and regret. This is true for everyone. Money is messy, too. Our relationship with money is subjective, although we act as if it is objective. In this environment, it’s time to look at our money differently. Rather than use it as a measurement of how well we are doing or a tool to create our position in the world, what if we use money in a different way — as something that supports our values rather than creates them. How do we get there?
One way to start is to pay closer attention to the things that can’t be measured. St. Thomas Aquinas talked of five transcendental properties (which John O’Donohue describes in his book, “Beauty: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope”): Being (our reality), the One (how despite vast differences we hold together as one), the Good (how practicing goodness helps us participate in the soul of the world), the True (how our experiences are real), and the Beautiful. Let’s look at our money in some of these terms.
If we are one, there is simply no place for hate. I was struck by a few clients who contacted me wondering how to show support after a couple of dramatically different events — the attack on the mosque in Minnesota and Hurricane Harvey. These clients weren’t Muslims or Houstonians, they were people who didn’t want to stop at being uncomfortable with what they were seeing but were compelled to contribute in some small way. They felt connected to people they did not know and would not meet.
We know from behavior finance, that we all use mental shortcuts (heuristics) that lead to irrational money decisions. We do the same thing with people. We make judgments about people who have money — successful, greedy, powerful, corrupt — and about those who don’t — lazy, downtrodden. But we are each of those things at different times and in different ways. It is natural, and harmful, to use these shortcuts. We frame great challenges through heuristics rather than values. The solutions are not easier if we view ourselves as connected, but they are more clear. If we look at those who can’t afford healthcare as freeloaders then we shouldn’t give it to them. But if we believe that in a connected society, everyone should have access to health care, then we should act accordingly. Providing access, though, may mean we limit the types and amounts to make care affordable. Our values are not progressive or conservative, they are humane and personal.
We can practice goodness in our lives through our money values. We can choose to not judge others by what they have or don’t have. When we are uncomfortable with a purchase we are about to make we can think about what is causing the discomfort. Buying things we want is not inherently good or bad. If we find ourselves justifying or rationalizing, then it may be because we are uncomfortable with the purchase or have discomfort with feeling like we deserve nice things.
Goodness involves having sympathetic joy for those who have more than we do, rather than feeling like someone else’s success or happiness detracts from our own. Goodness involves helping others who are down on their luck. At our recent high school reunion, the planning committee offered scholarships which made a statement that a classmate’s presence meant more than their money.
My favorite part of my job is listening to the experiences of others — the True. O’Donohue writes, “[Everyone] secretly and profoundly desires to be known.” Different clients have different interpretations of why things have happened to them or how they have dealt with issues, but all of their experiences are real for them. While those experiences have formed their past, it does not have to shape their future.
The planning challenge is determining ways to make more productive choices through understanding past decisions and their consequences. A failed investment doesn’t mean they should put all their money under the mattress. There are patterns that we can see that may help avoid repeating mistakes. We need to look at what were the characteristics of the investment that went wrong as well as our own characteristics as we made the investment? Were we acting out of greed or impulse or a sense of duty? What can we do to avoid these actions in the future?
Beauty is everywhere. Money can help us find things of beauty, but it isn’t essential to recognize the beautiful. We don’t need to acquire beauty, we can simply enjoy it. We can watch the sunset without trying to own the sun.
Even in this environment, we can be secure and comfortable, but it will only happen through the things that money can’t buy.
Ross Levin is the chief executive and founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.