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March 6th, 2019
How many movies and real human dramas have this statement as their core conflict: give me my money. A funny response - indeed, one likely to provoke anger might be: if it was your money, wouldn’t you have it?
The snap counter-argument here is to substitute money for an actual thing, like say, a guitar, and then it sounds like theft: give me my guitar implies that an actual thing was taken, but this analogical substitution is problematic because money is fungible and a guitar is not. Which leads to the deeper question of: what exactly is money?
How can a one-hundred dollar bill be worth more than the paper it’s printed on? We can’t really say that a guitar is worth more than the physical guitar that it actually is? This illuminates the problematic part of our substitution.
The one exception here is if a person has actually taken physical money from another person and it was against their will at all points in time, like someone grabbing a purse and running with it. At no point in time did the person with the purse willingly agree to the exchange.
The phrase give me my money - strangely enough - is most often used in other situations, when money was willingly transferred from one person to another and then due to a sour turnout of events, the giving party wants to somehow rewind the whole interaction and level the score, so to speak.
But the initial willingness to hand over money provides our hint to help peer into one of the core meanings within the concept of money. At first there was a willingness to cooperate, the situation changes and the willingness to cooperate vanishes. Give me my money is really expressing a regret about willing to cooperate.
Anger, if anything, is one way we emotionally react when we realize that our idea of the world and how it works has been incorrect. Others might be more prone to be sad as opposed to angry, but the situational mechanism is the same.
We can compare two situations in order to see just how much the notion of cooperation is at the core of these things.
We have Amy and Bob in a romantic relationship and when Bob finds out that Amy has been pursuing a relationship with someone else, Bob gets sad and potentially angry because at base Bob has evidence that shows the world does not work how he thought it did. Anger and Sadness are indications that our mental models have been flawed.
We have Amy who starts a bakery with Julia, but then several months into the operation Julia runs off with a bunch of Amy’s money which was supposed to be spent on new equipment to help expand the capabilities of the bakery. Amy gets sad and probably angry and yells into her phone at Julia “give me my money!”
Both of these stories are about cooperation falling apart. But only in the second one do we have the illusion of a mathematical value that we can ascribe to the cooperation.
Though Bob probably contributed to the romantic relationship in a financial way, an angry response of give me my money is not as fitting as it is with Julia and the bakery. If we were to try and come up with an equivalent statement, Bob might yell give me back my wasted time and effort! But this is of course a silly thing to demand.
What is most important about these situations is how our own perspective entraps us.
Being in a position where we say ‘give me my money’ is a terrible one to be in. It’s a position that feels entitled but is simultaneously powerless, which is a subtle contradiction and therefore gives rise to pain. Recognizing the powerless part can help disable the unhelpful sense of entitlement. We can illuminate this contradiction more easily with a physical example.
Someone who feels entitled to bench press 300lbs cannot do so unless they can actually generate the physical power to get under a 300lb bar and push it up. Someone who feels entitled to do so but does not actually have the strength to do so is literally going to hurt themselves due to this mistake.
In the examples of cooperation falling apart, this mistake leads instead to an emotional pain, especially when money is involved. It’s perfectly fair and just to say that Julia does actually owe Amy money because it was not used in the intended way, but this statement does not actually change Amy’s situation unless some higher force can rectify the situation.
What is more helpful for Amy is to realize that she took a chance, she took a risk and decided to cooperate with another person in the hopes that it would generate a result that enriched both of them more than they could do separately. But as with any chance or risk, we have to keep in mind that we cannot predict the future, and some cooperative situations fall apart due to no obvious or intended fault of the parties involved.
Emotional restitution resides solely in creating a new mental model of the world that takes into account these uncertainties.
And this new mental model, which takes into account people’s very limited ability to predict the future, even their future selves, may help enable us to forgive in a way that helps put to rest our failures of cooperation.
It is perhaps fitting that the word ‘forgive’, arises from an etymology that means to completely give or to give away.
This episode references Episode 311: Fake Fortune