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Problems with Money: How Price Tags Destroy Intimacy
Submitted by Patrick Groneman on Wed, 2/29/2012, 12:51am
by Patrick Groneman
(follow Patrick on Twitter)
A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were rushing to make a movie screening, and hailed a livery cab to expedite our cross-Brooklyn transit.
As the driver pulled up along the side of the road to let us out, I asked him, “How much do we owe you?” and he replied: “How much do you want to pay?”
In that moment my mind went blank. The low, sandy vibration of the car engine hummed as I peered over at my girlfriend for a cue. I wasn’t sure how to respond to this offering of space.
So, I thought about how much time we were in the car, how much he probably makes per hour, and then dreamt up several other frames through which to navigate the question. At this point, I realized that I hadn’t really considered the value of this trip, nor the value of the human being who was my driver up, and a wave of shame overtook me.
By asking me to name my own price, the driver was engaging my deepest values -- I had to consider my own sense of worth, his worth, and the worth of the ride in order to arrive at a “value” for his service. He had pulled me into a moment of intimacy, of human to human connection.
Normally, when the taxi meter spits out a number, I’m happy to pay a 25% tip and leave the rest of the tallying to the machines. This is the process through which most purchasing occurs in our culture. The system of exchange (money), rate for good or services rendered, and general expectation of value are pre-determined, clearly printed on the price tag. When it comes time to pay all we need to consider is whether or not we have enough money in order to complete the transaction.
To speak of this from a psychological perspective, the terms of the exchange are processed entirely in the conceptual realm. In Buddhist Psychology, the aspect of our consciousness that perceives concepts (or "mental objects") is considered a sixth sense (the first five are sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.)
But even though most of our value exchange occurs in concepts, our world of experience still comes from and effects the experiences of our other five senses. In short, there is a perceptual disconnect between our experience and the means by which we pay for it.
For example, imagine a Pineapple in all its beautiful complexity. The citrus smell, the rigid skin, and sticky center. Imagine the sun beating down on the pineapple tree leaves and the water rising up through the rain soaked earth into the roots, providing nourishment to the plant. If you’re lucky enough to eat one, you can imagine the vitamin C from the pulpy flesh protecting your arteries from free radicals and supporting the immune function in your body.
Now imagine you’re in a grocery store and you see a price tag beneath a shelf of pineapples that reads:
“Pineapple - $5.99”
Where’s all the sunshine and the rainwater and the vitamin C? Who decided that it was worth $5.99? The pineapple pickers? Where did it come from? Who decided the value of the dollar?
All of these perceptions and questions don’t really matter, as long as you have the $5.99. You can come up to the cash register and remain entirely inside this one sense of “mental objects”, and walk away with a juicy fresh pineapple. You can remain closed down to rich avenues of information that come through the other five senses and avoid full-bodied intimacy of your experience.
Because the system skews towards convenience and efficiency, it's up to us to be curious and open in our exchanges.
When the cab driver asked me the value of my ride with him, I had no where to turn but the feeling of my own heart. The thought of putting a price tag on that seemed laughable. I felt open, raw, like a freshly sliced pineapple on the cutting board.
Patrick Groneman is a Multi-Media artist the Executive Director of the Interdependence Project. More info about Patrick available on his website
(Image Credits: Pineapple - Wikimedia user Alvesgaspar, Money - U.S. Fed. Reserve, Price Tag - Wikimedia User Solomon 203)
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