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Fickle friend

Why do people insist on believing, against all evidence, that money will bring happiness?

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

An hour fresh from dropping a hundred dollars at an airport ticketing counter for a one-second typing error on a dot-com travel form, I am feeling disoriented over the asymmetry between work hours and amount of money in the pocket. Two years ago I emptied my wallet even faster than that-$5,000 for the nanosecond thrill of running a red light (no collision coverage). That's about 12 weeks of café work. In a rightly ordered universe, it seems to me, there would be more appropriate correlation between magnitude of moral blunder and magnitude of monetary damages.

Strange how we worldlings continue to insist in our minds, against all evidence to the contrary, on some kind of conjunction of earnings and well-being. The two are supposed to match up at some point, which is why we persist in chasing the former to catch hold of the latter. But it's a game of tag that never ends, a linkage only in the imagination. And then one day you're old and you die, and the two never did coalesce. And even if I do manage to make a fortune and keep it, "I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).

In fact, not only does there appear to be a tenuous relationship between income and happiness; it seems to be often a negative one: (1) Consider the man who gives everything to the poor and thereby discovers joy. (2) Consider the man who walks away from a financially rewarding career to follow his love in some less lucrative field, and ends up not only finding his dreams but falling into a bucket of cash. (3) Consider the lottery winner whose life becomes unbearable after the big score.

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There is an unreality about money. In one day in 1999 I came by $1,000 through no merit of my own, and in one day in 2003 I lost $1,000 through no fault of my own ("When your eyes light on it, it is gone"-Proverbs 23:5). My neighbor from Lima talks about 1986 when the Peruvian sol depreciated by three zeroes, and in an hour his nest egg was reduced to trinkets. "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin" (Proverbs 30:18-19). May I add a fifth: the way of a peso in the pocket.

Seems like an invisible hand directs the dizzying cash streams 'round the globe-and I don't mean Adam Smith's. "The race is not to the swift, . . . nor riches to the intelligent, . . . but time and chance happen to them all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). And if the wicked man could trace the trajectory of his investments into the future, he would see that "to the sinner He has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God" (Ecclesiastes 2:26).

Scripture exhibits a peculiar ennui about money. Amaziah king of Judah has just been warned by a prophet that he should dismiss the thousand mercenaries he's enlisted from backslidden northern Israel to help him fight the Edomites. All Amaziah can think, of course, is that he'll be out a hundred talents of silver. The prophet replies (and you can almost hear him sighing), "The Lord is able to give you much more than this" (2 Chronicles 25:9). In an act close to bored disdain, Jesus sends Peter to fetch a four-drachma coin from the mouth of a fish to pacify a petty-minded tax man; Jesus has bigger fish to fry.

In July I wrote about Philadelphia corruption ("Pay to play"). One year ago the kingpin of that money-grubbing scheme, lawyer Ron White, age 54, was on top of the world. Six months ago he was indicted for conspiracy. And yesterday he was dead of a ferocious pancreatic cancer, his life shrunk to a column of print in the Inquirer. He didn't take any of it with him.

If money is going to be that fickle, sound fiscal policy would seem to dictate keeping a loose grip on the stuff emotionally (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). And using it to make friends for yourself in really high places (Luke 16:9).

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