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November 10, 2007


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From: Reading from Needleman's Money and the Meaning of Life

In the introduction to his 1991 book, Money and the Meaning of Life, the philosopher Jacob Needleman writes about the role of money in a person's search for meaning and how money can trap us or liberate us:

I remember some conversations about money that also involved the businessman whose advice I quoted at the beginning of this introduction. The setting was a conference I had helped to organize in Madison, Wisconsin about 15 years ago. He had eagerly accepted my invitation to join a panel of distinguished scholars, religious leaders, and local civic and government officials on the theme "Money, Power, and the Human Spirit."

In fact, he spoke very little during the three days, but when he did speak, there was such a remarkable evenness and authority in his words that invariably a special atmosphere of listening prevailed. Yet the things he said seemed more often than not slightly baffling to the panelists.

"I was thinking," he said at one point. "It's a real question for me. Is there a way of looking at money, of educating myself, and educating our children to look at money so that it is actually not dirty, so that it is a unifying factor in every scale, in every sense? Or is money only a problem? Money is dealt with by economics. That's treating money as a problem. But is there a way of reconciling ourselves to money, so that we actually discover an attitude, an idea with which one can approach money, educate people to approach money, in a way that gives it a place in the life around us as a unifying influence? That, to me, is the question."

At another point, several of the panelists had been excoriating the rich as greedy and selfish, and condemning the American economic system for making wage slaves out of everyone, including teachers of young people, forcing them to sell out their ideals.

Addressing the most vocal of these, he broke in: "Could I probe you about that—because I am very moved by your concern for the materially poor people. Is it impossible that you would be concerned for the spiritually poor people who have a lot of money? Because if you could get some of them on your side they might be able to help you accomplish what you have to do."

This was met with sarcasm: "Tactically, I wouldn't bother with them!"

With the slightest shade of impatience in his voice, he replied: "I have been listening with good humor to the categorization of all rich people as being completely selfish and unintelligent. But, in fact, it takes a lot of character, a lot of imagination, a lot of determination to build a large fortune. It's not that easy. True, it is just money, but to work at it day after day in the changing, stormy, difficult economic climate we have—it's not that easy. You have got to allow that somebody who gets to the top of Continental Bank, or whatever, cannot be totally and hopelessly unintelligent.

"I think there are exceptions in all classes. There are morons among the poor and among the rich. Yet it seems that one needs to enlist the help of the privileged class in order to get anything done, even spiritually. It seems very odd, but even in the spiritual realm, money really does seem to help. I am being rather practical and this is the nub of my interest. It is very good to say that one should be poorer, but money seems to help."


Excellent, thank you. A fine quotation. How to integrate wealth into a meaninful life for self, loved ones and society, that is what Tracy and I call "inspired planning." But how do we elicit the vision? That more than the "tactics" of planning strikes me as the challenge. Who will play the role of
Socrates, or a good liberal arts teacher, on the client's planning team? What are the venues in which the viewpoint expressed in your qoutation could be cultivated?

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