In the winter of 1981, I was privileged to attend a series of personal growth weekends with a remarkable group of people in the Boston area. We were fortunate to have two inspired, creative leaders and a group member who shared his large house with us, including several acres bordering a lake. Before anyone outside Seattle had heard of Starbucks, Ron had been heir to a different coffee fortune.
I had been wondering about the role of money in my life. After years of living as an itinerant piano teacher on about $4,000 per year, I had jumped to $9,000 when I took a half-time job at Physical Sciences, Inc, doing contract research for the Department of Energy. $9,000 was below the per capita GDP in 1981 America, and it was less than half what a factory worker might have earned. But I had been accustomed to communal housing, the Boston Food Coop, and bicycle transport, and to me $9,000 felt like money to burn.
I was looking for creative ways to give money away, supporting charities to which I had no particular connection, putting $5 bills in envelopes and mailing them anonymously to friends, using an out-of-state postmark. At the same time, I was bitter about capitalism, heartbroken that so many Americans were living in squalid conditions, and I felt like a victim. Yes—even as I had more money than I knew how to spend on myself, I felt that the system had cheated me, and I was aware of the ironic contrast between these two perceptions of my economic status.
1981 was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and Prosperity Consciousness was among the trendy New Age religions. The idea that just managing one’s attitude, one could be as rich as one wanted to be was a double-edged sword.
I brought a paper bag to the weekend workshop with about $200 cash, mostly in ones, but a few fives and tens and twenties intermixed. My idea was to burn the money in Ron’s marble fireplace, to stimulate me to explore my feelings and perhaps to help others in the group who might also benefit from the ritual. I convened a sub-workshop with that intent.
If I remember, there were about six or eight of us in the room, feeding dollars into the fire. It had a more dramatic effect on the others in the room than on me, even if their feeling was mostly bewilderment rather than transformational epiphany. But one person in the room couldn’t tolerate what we were doing, and protested that it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Ron actually reached his hand into the fireplace to retrieve the larger bills, and attempted to blow out the flames.
Today, I spend more than $9,000 per year, even in 1981 dollars, but I don’t feel richer, and the idea of burning money seems almost as alien to me as it was to Ron. I still like to give away money at all levels, but mostly in small, unexpected ways. I go through periods when I am anxious about money. I can’t say that I’ve outgrown the magical thinking of Prosperity Consciousness, but I’ve adopted a more generalized and amorphous belief that my needs will be provided.
— JJM, 1/26/20