The Give and Take of Money and Meaning

Our way of life revolves around hundreds of millions of people, multiple times a day, exchanging time and energy of their personal essence for money. We are often encouraged to make this a poorly conceived unbalanced trade by our employer focused on profit and advertisers that advocate buying our way out of emptiness.

Millennials are making the effort to balance this equation. In a 2014 study commissioned by McGraw-Hill Education, 45% of students reported they would prefer a job that is beneficial to society, than one that pays top dollar.

A “capitalist” economy is meant to minimize a trade-off between meaning and money. We are not subject to the control and command of a Communist economy where this is little money nor meaning. We are also not slaves building a Great Wall or a Pyramid to satisfy the whim of an Emperor or a Pharaoh. We can decide our vocation and build our career of choice. We can gain value from our work. Yet, there is a gigantic disconnect in this economy when an average investment banker makes a hundred times as much as the best teacher. It seems difficult to build a stable, secure, happy life in the segment formerly known as the “middle class by doing worthwhile work.

There is plenty of evidence in today’s headlines that the single-minded pursuit of wealth often leads smart people to do stupid things; things that destroy what money can’t buy. Brilliant people with more affluence than they’ll ever need, allow their hunger for even more to cause them to lose everything. A prime example is Bernie Madoff, the investment advisor and financier who is currently serving a federal prison sentence for offenses related to a massive Ponzi scheme. The bestseller turned movie, Too Big to Fail, chronicled the 2008 subprime-mortgage fiasco — an exercise in collective greed that came close to destroying the world’s economy. Then there is the Enron scandal of 2001. If wealth is so alluring, how is it that so many people with great sums of it, also seem so unhappy? While society has become proficient in the pursuit of material wealth, lives rich with substance remain tenuous and scarce.

Riches do not define success. To me, being all in with all my blessings (capabilities and capacities) in a noteworthy life, is a success. Life is defined by our internal compass. In my opinion, Pat Tillman is the ideal example of an individual whose internal compass pointed true north to a life of purpose. Pat walked away from millions of dollars as an NFL football player to join the military in the wake of 9-11, a decision that ultimately cost him his life. I have also watched an incredible woman, my wife, choose to leave a stellar career with a Fortune 50 company to be the “Mom” present in her children’s lives.

I’ve had some gratifying jobs, as well as the balance of being grounded. Taking a new job in Maryland and moving from New Jersey allowed us to have a more affordable home life to raise a family. In this move, I left a multi-million-dollar sales opportunity on the table for someone else to finish and benefit from financially. None of my jobs have been more rewarding than being a volunteer coach of high school student-athletes. The experience of coaching these students and bringing out their potential was draining at times, but worth it. The intrinsic reward of leading others from where they were to where they need to be provided purpose and meaning to my efforts. I coached for the love and reward that exceeded any material possession money could buy. I was a volunteer coach, with no compensation. I used to kid the players that coaching cost me income, as the time spent coaching was less time spent selling which could have created more compensation.

The saying ‘money can’t buy happiness’ is true; especially if we’re unhappy in the first place. Having money won’t change our internal makeup. If we are anxious and worried about life’s essentials, we’ll be anxious and worried about life’s luxuries. There is happiness in hard work, something no amount of currency can buy. A Christian work ethic is one in which work is viewed as a virtuous duty. Those are things of the spirit. God ordained work and work ethics in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Paul teaches to always be fully devoted to the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (6:6-11) he writes, “Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”

This verse is one of the most illuminating scriptures about money, however many people quote this verse wrongly, saying that “money is the root of all evil.” In fact, the verse says that “the love of money is the root of all evils.” It’s not the money, but the devotion to possessing money that’s evil. The word ‘contentment’ in Paul’s letter is the Greek word ‘autarkeia,’ a philosophical term for the virtue of independence from material goods. True contentment doesn’t come from having wealth or possessions or even our circumstances; but from above.

Christians are called the salt of the earth because we are destined to enhance and give purpose to life. It may be an odd analogy, but Jesus compared believers to salt for a reason. Salt is a dietary mineral, used for flavoring and preservation – needed by all known living creatures. If abused, it can be harmful. However, it is also detrimental to have no salt intake because it regulates the water content in our bodies. Jesus used salt to describe how Christians are needed to bring balance and hope to an otherwise dying world.

Every life should seek and discover, meaning. The challenge is forging a life by investing money as well as time, energy, attention, relationships, and passion into the substance of a meaningful life, well lived. We don’t have to get to the top of THE mountain, we just must get to the top of OUR mountain.

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