Has this ever happened to you? My roommate and I occasionally save up the money to call in a woman to tidy up our apartment — kind of as gift to ourselves when the rush of New York living becomes a bit too overwhelming to get the energy up to clean the living room. Last month, I got a text from her asking if we needed her services any time soon… and I found myself suddenly submerged in an uncomfortable awareness.
The money that my roommate and I save up and set aside for a cleaning — that I usually see as simply “paying for a service” — that money was essential to this woman’s livelihood. In paying her to clean my apartment, I was giving her the means through which she could pay the rent in her own.
It was a sharp moment of emotional clarity about the grander nature of our transaction that sent pinpricks up my arms. I got to thinking. What else might my transactions be directly responsible for? Why had the simple-yet-obvious knowledge of where my money was going been so invisible to me before? And why, now that I’d realized the emotional truth of the transactional nature of money, did I feel so disconcerted by it?
As I tried to answer these questions for myself, I found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of existential unease (as I’m, apparently, wont to do). The story, it goeth thusly:
Money is such an abstract concept — especially in the age of credit cards, Venmo, and PayPal — that it’s easy to forget the weight it holds. As I grow older, I discover all the ways in which my presence here impacts the world around me… and perhaps the most frightening, to me, is the power my money holds in society today.
Okay, Figmet of My Nonexistent Audience: I feel you, but hold the snark for a second. I realize I’m saying nothing revolutionary here. Obviously, “money is power,” “money is scary,” blah blah blah, you’ve seen this movie before and heard the villain monologue a ton, I know. I’m talking less about the broader concept and more about the personal emotional impact I’ve noticed that concept has had on me.
Like, for example: once I realized my money was directly contributing to the continuation of my cleaning lady and her family’s lifestyle, I suddenly felt I had to continue providing her with a source of income. I recognized, logically, that I didn’t really have an obligation to continue using her services if I didn’t want to… and yet, I couldn’t shake this odd sense of responsibility toward her.
I’ve noticed this sense of responsibility cropping up in all my transaction, recently. That coffee I pay for at my favorite coffee shop? The tip I leave goes to the amazing, friendly baristas working behind the counter, all finishing degrees at school or working a second job to pay for the kids at home. The personal trainer I visit? She’s got rent to pay, an independent business to mantain, pets to feed. The classes I take? They’ve got electricity and rentspace in the building, postage, and that’s not even mentioning the front desk workers they give salary to. Even my work at the theater is put into perspective when I start to think this way.
Maybe it’s because we live in a society where big businesses seem to be making more of the rules than actual politicians. Maybe it’s simply what happens when you create an artificial barrier between what is given and what is recieved — when you trade a few slips of paper or an increasingly-imaginary idealogical construct that we pretend is an essential marker of status or worth, for a concrete, usuable, consumable service or object. “Here, swipe this magnetic strip of 1s and 0s and keep track of how high your numbers are. The higher the number, the more you’re allowed to participate in life!”
I don’t know the exact whys behind it. But for some reason, it’s very easy to see the world around us as a giant machine of cogs and wheels, like a looming behemoth of a 1960s IBM that gives you what you want if you push the right buttons or feed it the right ideas. When you give away something immaterial, what happens to it? It often feels like it simply disappears once it’s not yours anymore. Dissolved into the machine.
There’s something about recognizing the humanity behind the abstract that sometimes overwhelms me. The empathetic understanding of the ripples I make whenever I leave a footprint in the environment around me leaves me uneasy, sending me contemplating not just my own place within that environment, but also the invisible nature of the impact I can have over the place of others.
Is it wrong that we’ve created a system where I can have so much unknowing power over another person’s life? Or is that the only way a society exists? Is there a way to create a world where we’re immediately aware of our inherent responsibility towards each other, or is that awareness an inherently insidious kind of knowledge? Is it a kind of empathy you grow into? Or am I just a weirdo? Is it silly that I feel such a responsibility towards those I give money to?
I have no answers to these questions, and I can’t help but continue to ask them. Maybe as I build my career and further interact as an adult in society, I’ll figure out. Or maybe I’ll never really get it. Either way, it’s a truth of my life I’m having difficulty navigating recently.
And that’s the story, morning glory!