It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, even if it may come off that way. But, you know, I am very careful to refrain from self-pitying thoughts because I do live in a very poor country. Which means that, much as I can’t afford certain things at the moment (like a Chai Latte at Coffee Bean), there are many, many people—millions, in this country--who can barely afford to feed their family. That picture in my head usually steers me away from the door marked This Way to Complete and Utter Despair.
That’s why I don’t. Despair, that is. I don’t despair the fact that I have no bank account, no savings, no insurance, no credit card, no regular income and that I’ve been mooching off my parents for the past year. In fact, I take an almost perverse pleasure and a weird sense of achievement that I am actually bereft of the things I supposedly cannot live without. My life has been pretty basic but I am very grateful that I do have what I need right now: I eat three meals a day, I have my own room, I have family to share things with and who by now know enough when to leave me alone, I can write in peace.
Food, space, company, solitude, a form of expression—sounds good to me. I want to say I’m doing fine, that I’m actually quite content, but I’m almost sure no one is going to believe me (No credit card? Come on, how can you be content?) I’m thinking, If I were not me right now, I wouldn’t believe me, either. So I won’t even try to convince anyone here.
I just want to marvel at how I got to this point--the point where money has little to no say in the decisions of my life.
It’s not that I hate money or that I’m afraid of it, as a friend once assumed. I just suspected it was overrated, over-hyped, like sex with a Latino lover (not that I’ve had one—I promise to get back to you on that when I’ve had that experience. Oh, that would be so nice…).
Anyway, like I said, it was just a suspicion. There was just something about how people tended to go on and on about how things weren’t possible without money—lots of it—that made me question its supposed overwhelming power. I know it’s important—I won’t take that away from money—but I felt that people were giving it way too much importance, assigning it such a central role in their lives that I just didn’t think it deserved. People were waiting for it—via a winning lotto ticket, a one-time-big-time deal, an “unexpected” windfall—with the ardor of the faithful awaiting the Second Coming of the Messiah, as if to deliver them from the “quiet desperation” and monotony of their lives. “As soon as I have the money…”, “Magkapera lang ako…” I hear people—smart, educated ones—say all the time, as if only by the arrival of The Money can their lives finally begin.
I was gripped by a sense of urgency, by a painful awareness of time’s passing, to bother so much with whether or not I had enough material resources. There was so much I wanted to do and I was aware that I was given exactly the same number of hours a day as everyone else. While I could negotiate or work harder and longer for more money, these strategies just didn’t work with time. There was just no way to make more of it. The only realistic thing, actually, was to make the most of it. It became pretty clear to me that between time and money, the former was just infinitely more valuable, if only for the fact that it was non-renewable—once it was gone, it was gone forever.
I decided early on that I was going make the most of this valuable time, to spend it only on things that mean something to me. Which meant that, if I could think of five other things I’d rather be doing, no matter how much I was getting paid to do whatever it was I was supposed to be doing at the moment, then I’d just drop the whole thing.
And so it seemed (or seems), to my friends and family, that I didn’t—or still don’t--care about money, that I dismiss it, that I am not realistic or grounded enough to bother with it. Which just isn’t true. I do know money is valuable—I mean, how else am I able to pay for my books, my travels, my movies, my tea, my, um, bikini wax? It’s just scary how people have confused it to be the most valuable thing, how they’ve ceded so much of their own personal power to it, driving themselves to the ground for it.
I’ve seen how easy it is to be paralyzed by a lack of money, to believe that nothing worthwhile can be achieved without it—and it was an idea that I just couldn’t ram down my throat. My mind and my whole body strongly resisted this notion. I wanted to know for sure whether my suspicion about money’s overblown sense of importance was true, and the only way to know that was to go and live my life with it only on the sidelines, kicking it out of the way as much as I could.
Of course, I may have overdone it. (No bank account, no savings, no insurance, no credit card, no regular income…Ok, so I have overdone it.) But I just needed to make sure that money was in its proper place in my life, that it played a supporting role in it rather than the lead, that it wasn’t front and center. I needed to make sure I was calling the shots, telling it what it can do for me instead of the other way around. In that sense, I can say I was successful. Very, very successful. I had systematically removed myself from the complex financial network, where I felt like a fly trapped in a spider's web--left the world of the regular job and its regular pay, cut my credit card as soon as I paid off all my debts, stopped paying for my insurance altogether (never mind if everyone said it was sayang), closed my bank account. Financial crisis, you say? Shouldn’t one have finances, to begin with?
There is another thing, too: Sometimes, I think people use money as a scapegoat—a convenient thing to point a finger at when their courage fails them. They can hide behind “Kailangan kasi kumita, eh” for not doing the things they dream of doing. It seems more acceptable, I guess, than “Takot kasi ako’ng sumemplang, eh."
This is not to say I am above being driven by fear. My friend Cecilia, fond of trying to read people, declared to me once, after fixing me with the unsettling penetrating stare of a manghuhula, “You don’t have any fears.” She sounded awestruck. I said, “Everyone has fears, Cecilia” as my mind quickly ran through its “Fear” file. Then she gasped, and I could almost see the light bulb switch on above her head. “Money!” Her eyes grew large and questioning. “You’re afraid of…money? Why?”
I explained to her that it wasn’t money I was afraid of—that it was people’s perception of money that scared me. It was so potent, I worried it might infect me one day. Later that night, I dug deeper than that and realized that my real fear was the idea that, if I wasn’t vigilant enough, something—including money--could actually hold me back, could keep me from going after the things that I want. I was afraid of being weighed down, of feeling trapped in a certain kind of life the way I had seen it happen with other people just because they bought into the notion that they absolutely cannot live without certain things. And that fear was strong enough to make me hack away at potential shackles around my feet.
The first to go, as it happened, was money.