“Grappling with the Green-Backed Monster,” Ensign, Sept. 1989, 62
My friend and I were discussing some things we’d been reading in the paper: dishonesty and fraud in business on one page; misuse of talents to degrade and deceive on the next. I shook my head in puzzlement. “I don’t understand. What could motivate people to want to take advantage of the worst in others?”
“Money,” my friend answered, rubbing her fingers together. “People do crazy things for the green stuff.”
“I suppose they do,” I agreed halfheartedly. But even after she had left I still didn’t understand how money—green papers, numbers in a computer—could become that important. How could people forget real values for something that really isn’t that significant?
I suppose I knew that money itself isn’t the culprit, but that it is the lust for it that causes such havoc with principles. But I still didn’t understand how that could happen until a few weeks later when I discovered firsthand the power of what we might call the green-backed monster.
Our paychecks hadn’t been stretching quite far enough to meet the flood of bills our family had recently encountered. Teaching writing workshops, I thought, just might be the answer. To find out what I was up against, I took out a piece of paper and did some quick figuring. Even if I had only five students, I discovered, and charged a minimal amount, I’d be able to bring in about $25 or $35 per session. It sounded good.
It sounded so good that I decided that I would manage my affairs carefully enough to be able to teach two such sessions per week. At $25 per session, I’d make about $50 a week, or $200 a month. Not bad, but it still didn’t quite cover what we’d be needing, so I began jotting down what would happen with ten students in each of my classes. Ah, now things looked better. With ten students in each class, I could earn $400 per month.
“Goodness,” I thought, “why not teach a class every day?” Eagerly I jotted down how much I would make teaching five workshops a week.
“Eight hundred dollars, or more!” Not bad for a part-time job! What if I taught even more? My pen flying, I figured out how much I would make teaching two classes a day. Well, why not? And perhaps I’d charge by the month so that anyone missing a class would not expect reimbursement.
With dollar signs dancing in my head, I continued: three classes a day with twelve people; four classes a day with fifteen people; five classes a day with twenty people. By late evening I was getting bleary-eyed with all the figuring. In fact, I realized that I was calculating in the semi-darkness. After turning on the overhead lamp, I refigured my computations, and then finally, reluctantly, went to bed.
In the morning, the green-backed monster’s tendrils were definitely gripping me. I skipped breakfast and didn’t bother to get dressed. “More,” the green-backed monster was hissing in my ear. How many people could I possible squeeze into my living room? What if I held two or three workshops simultaneously?
“More! More!” the monster chanted. It wasn’t far into the morning when I began spending my money. I’d buy a new car. We’d been needing to redecorate for quite a while. And clothes. I really needed clothes. I pictured myself walking into a store and buying anything I wanted. I was worrying about tax shelters and thinking of buying neighboring lots when the telephone rang.
“Oh, hello!” How happy I was to hear from Audrey. She had once indicated a desire to learn more about writing. “It’s funny you should call right now,” I said, as I plotted how I could convince my friend to turn over a huge portion of her income for my intense new craving. “I was just making plans to teach a writing workshop. Are you still interested?”
“That’s great. I’d love to participate,” Audrey said.
“That’s great. I’d love to,” I repeated to myself, mentally rubbing my hands together like Fagin in Oliver Twist. Why, this was easy!
But then Audrey asked a pointed question that bounced me back onto reality’s stage.
“What do you think you’ll be teaching?”
“Well, writing,” I answered.
“I mean what kind: fiction, poetry?”
“Oh, yes, sure, ummm.” I sounded as awkward as I felt. The fact is, I did not have the slightest idea what I planned to teach. I had used a few dozen sheets of paper and much mental strain discovering how much money I planned to make, but I had not devoted one brain cell of thought, not one square inch of legal pad, to what I would be offering in my workshops.
“Um, I’ll tell you what. I’ll get back with you when I’ve finished my planning,” I said to Audrey. “I’ll, umm, call you tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” she answered.
After I had hung up the phone, I stared at the stack of papers before me, each sheet bursting its borders with dollar signs. I shook my head and blinked. I rubbed my eyes. What on earth had gotten into me? How could I have gotten so carried away that I had forgotten that first and foremost I needed to give fair service and have something beneficial to offer? I had spent hours trying to figure out the financial aspect of my teaching when I didn’t even have anything to give my students.
Quickly I crumpled up the papers before me, pulling loose from the monster’s sticky tendrils with a jerk. I tore a clean sheet of paper from the legal pad and started writing again. This time, instead of numbers, words appeared on my paper. The words suggested ideas and exercises that I hoped would inspire and benefit those who wanted to learn the art of writing. Gradually, I found myself scribbling with urgency again. But this was an urgency of a different nature. A good feeling had enveloped me. In fact, I was excited. I ripped off another sheet of paper and then another. Soon I couldn’t wait to teach.
What a contrast the new uplifting feeling was with the dark urgency I had felt earlier! Now I felt free. And in a sense I was free—free from the clutches of the green-backed monster.
The experience I had that day helped me realize how easy it is to become grappled by greed and lust for money and how we must be on guard to avoid those tendrils. Greed can cause us to do foolish things. Like the monkey who put his paw in a jar of nuts, but then wouldn’t let go of enough to get his hand back out, we become our own worst enemies. The experience also taught me that we not only need to be wary of those whose greed might prompt them to prey on us, we need to be cautious that we do not let ourselves compromise our values and let the golden rule go to the gallows.
In today’s world, where money has become the measuring stick for success and the pursuit of it all-important, it is easier than ever before to slip into the monster’s clutches.
In a commencement address at Brigham Young University, Dr. Hugh Nibley spoke of the perversion in today’s world: “The manager ‘knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing’ (Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, act 3), because for him the value is the price.” Quality is downgraded in our world into what is salable. But this seems to be nothing new. Even in Christ’s world it was assumed that everything had a price. Dr. Nibley illustrated this point with the scripture in which Simon the sorcerer offers Peter money for the gift of God. “Thy money perish with thee,” Peter tells him. (Acts 8:20.) (“Leaders and Managers,” Brigham Young University 1982–1983 Fireside and Devotional Speeches, Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1983, p. 189.)
Dr. Nibley concluded his speech with these hair-raising words: “Most of you are here today only because you believe that this charade will help you get ahead in the world. But in the last few years things have got out of hand; ‘the economy,’ once the most important thing in our materialistic lives, has become the only thing. We have been swept up in a total dedication to ‘the economy,’ which … is rapidly engulfing and suffocating everything. If President Spencer W. Kimball is ‘frightened and appalled’ by what he sees, I can do no better than to conclude with his words: ‘We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the “arm of the flesh,” for the Lord has said to all the world in our day, “I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.” (D&C 64:24.)’ (Ensign, June 1976, p. 6.) And Babylon is where we are.” (Leaders, p. 190.)
Okay, some might say, perhaps money shouldn’t be everything in our lives, but it’s still something. We need it to function and survive. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and dinner and breakfast aren’t getting any cheaper, either. Besides, what’s wrong with wanting to get ahead in the world as long as we keep our heads?
Yes, we do need to function financially in order to live. The making of money isn’t wrong, and money itself is not the culprit. Some people are even extremely talented at making money and have used that talent for good. We are only in danger when the green-backed monster grapples us into thinking of money as our God.
Keeping our priorities straight does not exclude us from making money. We may even find ourselves better off financially than we would have been. Ironically, I found that when I pushed money to a lower position of importance in my teaching, and began to really care about the people in my classes, my art, and what I was teaching; when I did my best to give honest, genuine help, I had no trouble building my classes. Later, I wondered how much word-of-mouth business I would have gotten had I pulled people into my home without thought for their progress or their physical well-being. It seems when we give a fair service or product and try to be honest in our dealings, money doesn’t necessarily evade us.
An acquaintance once put it this way: “I found out the secret to running a successful business: you just try to find the very best product for the customer’s needs, and then you try to give sincere and genuine help. In other words, you really care. People are so surprised that they keep coming back to see if you’re real.”
An employee who works for more than just a paycheck, but with loyalty and enthusiasm for what he’s doing, often discovers himself promoted.
Most of us, I believe, will not necessarily be worse off financially when we grapple the monster by keeping our priorities straight. Often we are better off. Oh, I know in our competitive and cutthroat financial world there are exceptions, but when we put our values first and live in accordance with that good feeling of the Spirit, aren’t we always better off?
“Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can,” President Ezra Taft Benson has said. “He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whosoever will lose his life in the service of God will find he has eternal life.” (Ensign, Dec. 1988, p. 4.)
As we keep the green-backed monster in control by living our lives in tune with the Spirit, we find that the deep peace we feel reaches far beyond the realm of materialism. I found that the feeling of self-respect I gained as I gave my best and the joy I experienced when others succeeded in my writing classes were feelings I would not have traded for any amount of money. But then, such feelings aren’t subject to trade. Like the gifts of God, they simply have no price tag.