Every Sunday I felt bathed by Father Purnell’s accepting words. Embraced, almost. This man, so solid, so powerful, seemed, strangely, to be as broken on the inside as I was. (He would later tell me, without shame, Every Christian has a broken heart. ) A father wants his children to have what he had growing up and resents his wife’s foot-dragging about getting a job, while she thinks he minimizes the value of her unpaid labor at home. Children can stress a marriage by revealing to parents their deep differences over money, differences they may not have even known they had. In a perfect world, our social arrangements would support a work-family balance that caused less money and time stress for couples with children. Laura Carstensen, one of the leading lights of longevity research, extols the benefits of spreading out work and other obligations more evenly between Act II and Act III of our lives. She suggests creating an employmentarc’ in which employees can gradually ease into the workforce as young adults, working fewer hours during the years that they’re caring for young children, completing their educations, and trying to find the right careers. A slower, longer work phase, she writes, would mitigate time pressures on middle-aged adults and allow people of all ages more options for how to spend their time. Putting Carstensen’s vision into practice, even partially, would have a powerful impact on the normal levels of life (and money) stress faced by midlife couples and parents. But social norms change slowly. In part, it’s because people are steeped in the customs of their social group, and their identities rest on their economic profile and patterns of consumption in ways they are loath to admit. Society is unlikely to reengineer itself overnight, and if we wait for the heavy cogs of workplace culture to shift, we’ll be waiting a long time. This is why in life people never actually call on their friends in the way that they call on themselves; rather than make such demands on others they will usually revert to doing things for themselves. Similarly, people may have one or two friends with whom they feel they can be completely open, but in reality they always hold things back in order not to disturb the illusion of friendship – another manifestation of feigning it and amicable dissimulation. This is also why to demand proof of friendship is the best way of ending it, Kant reflects, though he adds that the disposition of goodwill encouraged by friendliness, even when fake, improves life in its own way. Friendship’s suspect nature is revealed in other ways.
He observes that people may form circles of friends on the basis that they share the same beliefs, interests or identity. But again these gestures are morally suspect because they tend to harden the heart against those outside the charmed circle. Kant hints that the effort to make oneself deserving of friendship may be of some moral worth as a result of a strange twist of the obligations imposed by the categorical imperative: it implies that it is a person’s duty to respect other people’s friends because that is what they would hope for in return, lest their own illusions about friendship are shattered. Friendship develops the minor virtues of life,’ he concludes, damning it with faint praise. All in all, the morally ambiguous status of friendship is really left unchallenged. It’s not a distinctive card (not like the sleek black matte card George Clooney receives when he reaches 10 million miles in Up in the Air), so I make sure it gets noticed by asking airline employees, Have you ever seen one of these before? In theory a fully engaged airline employee would see my impressive mileage and treat me like royalty – if only because I have showered the company with my patronage and cash. But given the engagement gap I’d experienced among the airline’s in-flight employees, I didn’t have very high expectations for the people on the ground. In my experience, fully engaged employees are positive and proactive about their relationship to the job. They not only feel good about what they’re doing; they don’t mind showing off their enthusiasm to the world. Using those qualities – positive versus negative, proactive versus passive – I tracked the responses to my 11 million miles card to distinguish four levels of engagement: Committed: The proactively positive employees would examine the card as if they’d never seen it before, and say some variation on Hey, this is cool. Some would call over another employee to check out the card. They’d all thank me for my loyalty – and they meant it. One Sunday morning, after two months of flying solo in my tear-stained pew, I tentatively emerged from behind the pillar and joined the throng at coffee hour after the service. Why not have a lemon square? I was a fish out of water in the big Tudor hall. But within five minutes, Father Purnell himself spied me and made a beeline in my direction. Smiling, he reached out his hand.
Good morning, mystery man. Why do I always think I’m invisible? Father Purnell invited me to have coffee one day soon, and pulled a calendar and little pencil out of his back pocket. He looked at me expectantly. My first meeting with Father Purnell took place in his private study in the church rectory, which stood across the street from–and magisterially overlooked–the church itself. A more near-at-hand countercultural approach can be found in the blog posts of Mr. Money Mustache, who advocates a radical frugality based on a personal amalgam of stoicism, Buddhism, and badassity. Like many of his enthusiastic followers, I spent a week one summer binge-reading every post of his since 2011 and became hooked on his singular brand of humor, needling, and inspiration. He defines his mission as to try to get the people of the world’s rich countries excited about separating the idea of lifetime happiness, from the idea of buying expensive shit with which to pamper yourself. . It’s a human psychology problem as much as it is a financial or technical or political one. His approach turns what social scientists call time discounting on its head. For most people, the power of now means that they’ll choose to enjoy something in the present rather than defer gratification. Mr. Money Mustache (aka Peter Adeney), by contrast, believes that one of the most useful concepts to apply to personal finance is a form of big-picture thinking he dubs the idea of a past, present, and future self. They take themselves too seriously, for surely most people don’t worry so much about the dark undercurrents of friendship. They just get on with it – and discover the joys of friendship, and even the virtues it encourages, as a result. However, Kant is onto something that even the most carefree will find alarmingly familiar. Think of the following simple scenario. Suppose someone lives in a boarding house with fellow tenants whom they do not know.
This boarding house has a shared bathroom. The cohabiting strangers have good reason to leave the bathroom clean and tidy after washing because only then can they hope, with impunity, that the others in the house will do the same as well. In other words, there is good reason for the housemates to be equally bound by an unwritten rule of ‘bathroom cleanliness’. Now consider someone else who lives in a shared house, though not with a group of strangers, but with a group of friends. Their relationship to each other is entirely different. Even though we were in the middle of a quickly forgotten exchange – it didn’t rise to the level of a transaction, certainly not a relationship – and would not see each other again, the employees made me feel great. That’s engagement. Professional: Then there are the passively positive responses, best expressed by the woman behind the desk in Dallas who offered the sincere pleasantry, We appreciate your loyalty, sir. That’s okay. She made me feel appreciated. She was being a professional. Cynical: The most common response I get is the passively negative tone of That’s nice, sir. Or That’s interesting. Bored with their job and indifferent to customers, these employees opt for the passive-aggressiveness of being superficially engaged with what they’re doing but conveying through their tone of voice that they really don’t care. Hostile: At the bottom of the engagement barrel are the proactively negative types who dislike their jobs and can barely tolerate me. The house was a strange combination of grandeur and simplicity, an imposing Georgian manse with large, paneled rooms; lots of leaded glass; and a grand staircase. The furnishings were spare: a black-leather sofa here, a non-matching chair there, an old stereo set with a pile of records, mismatched crocheted throws. It looked a little like someone was camping out–though in the most orderly fashion.
The study was the only well-lived-in room in the house. It was dark, like the church. Heavy. Solemn. It was sheathed in oak paneling and articles, and was replete with brown and red leather. He writes: Every financial transaction you make today is not so much a deal with a mortgage company, car dealer or department store. It’s a deal with your future self. After all, when the 20-year-old version of you borrowed $32,000 to buy that fully loaded Honda Accord, who ended up having to pay it back? The past self got the new car with no responsibility, and her successor in the present holds the result: a debt hangover and a car that’s now worth only a tiny fraction of the new price. Past You gave Present You the shaft. Adeney’s point about integrating your past, present, and future self into your current financial perspective lines up with the golden-ring mind-set we’ve discussed, where the needs of the individuals and the couple are integrated into a big-picture approach. But taking account of your past, present, and future self, and becoming a financial badass as Adeney suggests, pretty much guarantees you’ll feel unintegrated into the mainstream consumer culture. He doesn’t believe in commuting, new cars, expensive extracurricular activities, debt, eating out, and any number of other fixtures of bourgeois American life. What he despises most is affluent Americans complaining about their money woes, and he’s happy to help cure us by pouring a big bucket of cold water over our heads: They do not treat each other impersonally but as individuals whom they know. This may cause them to act selflessly sometimes – when, for example, they clean the bathroom after their inveterately messy friend. But it may also cause them to act selfishly if, for example, that same messy friend happens to leave the bathroom dirty one too many times and the cleaner friend becomes annoyed. The point is that in the first case, of cohabiting strangers, there is a universalisable law governing bathroom cleaning, whereas in the latter case, of cohabiting friends, there is not. The reason?