Hiking Together: Reflections on Wealth, Justice, & Community

HIKING TOGETHER: REFLECTIONS ON WEALTH, JUSTICE, & COMMUNITY
By Courtney E. Martin

When I was 25 years old, I was struck by publishing lightening and received a six-figure book contract. I was living among a motley crew of underemployed friends and poor artists. Those of us who had jobs were some totally whack person’s assistant, weathering the storms of his or her “issues” for a paycheck that barely covered rent, bagels, and beer each month. We were financially strapped, particularly living in Brooklyn, but we were mostly happy and creative, hanging together and having fun. 

Suddenly having wealth, and, no less, having it because of my writing—an art that many of my friends were engaged in—was alienating. The scale of it was off. Why should my book on body image and perfectionism be valued at six figures, while my brother’s abstract poetry about city living was valued at almost nothing, at least by publishers? Why should I, of all my friends, be the one to receive this money and all the security, praise, and opportunity that came with it? 

It wasn’t long before I’d decided that I was going to give some of it away, not only because it was alienating, but also because I’d always believed in living a life where my relationship with money was in line with my values. Stockpiling a six-figure advance given to me by a dysfunctional, depersonalizing industry didn’t seem like the way to be an ethical person in the world.  

Problematizing the money I was about to receive became a Pandora’s Box of critique, re-evaluation, and relationship strain. If I was deciding that it didn’t seem right for me to have excess money invested, then what did that mean about my parents, who were big believers in savings and security? What did it mean about friends of mine who, unlike me, already had the kinds of investments that I was just considering, created by their parents in their names? 

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Not long after I signed the book contract, I was questioning—perhaps interrogating—my parents and my brother about their relationship to money, security, and ethics as we hiked in a single file line along a gentle, winding trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “But how can you feel okay about stockpiling money when there are so many people in the world who are struggling with basic needs?” I asked, the accusation already thick in my voice.

“First of all, I take issue with the idea that we are ‘stockpiling’ money,” my dad said. “We have enough for retirement, which we’ve long looked forward to, but we’re not sitting on piles of money.”

“But in the most basic sense, you are,” I shot back. “You have, let’s say, $10, which if given away today could buy a meal for someone who is hungry. How can you justify keeping that sequestered in your own accounts for some later day when someone might die today?”

It went on like this. I was turning my alienation outward. Flinging my fear at my family—not in the spirit of real problem solving but in an effort to separate bad from good. I wanted to be on the good side, which meant they—by virtue of how they thought about and used money—were on the bad side. Never mind that my dad was raised in an abusive home where a lack of money was at the centerpiece of most fights between his parents. Never mind that he’d become a bankruptcy lawyer, in large part because he grew up answering the door for bill collectors and pretending his parents weren’t home. Never mind that my mom had never earned what she deserved for her community work. 

It was all about me. I wallowed in catastrophe. I cried. A lot. My family, for their part, talks about feeling sideswiped by my relentless questioning and fury. I was barreling down on them in a Mack truck filled with my own charged confusion.  

We drove back to the house after the hike in silence. I looked out the window at the little, squat houses of Santa Fe and let tears roll down my face, feeling totally desperate and even more alone than when I’d started. If I couldn’t talk about this stuff with my family, whom I loved deeply and mostly felt very understood by, whom could I talk to? It felt like the whole world was trying to convince me that piling up excess money was okay, and even virtuous, while something in my gut told me otherwise. 

There is no full-circle, happy ending to this story. I tried to counter my alienation by starting something called The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy; I gave ten friends $100, asked them to give it away, and invited them to come to a bar so that we could talk about what they’d decided to do. Daniel found pairs of strangers in bookstores and asked them to tell each other about their favorite books. Then he bought a copy of each so they could exchange them. Chris gave a bartender who had been having a string of bad luck a $100 tip. Kimmi bought copies of the popular New Age book The Secret and handed them out to people who seemed like they could use a little primer on the “power of attraction.” 

This was delightful beyond my own stuck imagination. And it was not because I loved everything that everyone did. I had my own qualms with The Secret, which I felt neglected to account for systemic injustice. But this was all part of a big lesson for me: In loving Kimmi, I let go of exactly how the money was spent. In letting go, I found myself humbled in all the right ways, understanding deeply that maybe there is no perfect way to do philanthropy. 

The other lesson was that, just like everything else under the sun, it wasn’t about the money. Giving became an invitation to think differently about relationships. Anica found someone she’d been dear friends with in high school—a woman raising two kids alone without a lot of resources—and she bought them all Christmas presents that arrived anonymously in the mail. She could have done that without The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy, but the project became a container for reconnection, rekindling, and remembering.  

The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy created community around some of the deeper questions I was asking: For whom am I responsible? How can giving away money be reunited with a sense of real human interaction? Where is the creativity and joy in all of this? 

It was fun and profoundly comforting to be among my smart, artful friends, and to see them struggle with some of the same issues that I had struggled with. To my surprise, it also went viral. The initial ten friends that I had tapped to be “secret agents” assumed it was a reverse pyramid scheme of sorts. “When do I give my $100 to a new agent?” they asked a year later. Why not? I thought. That first group of agents multiplied over the course of six years. The New York Times covered our quirky little experiment and chapters popped up all over the world. From friends sitting around campfires in North Carolina to groups gathered in living rooms in Norway, people were enthusiastic and engaged. 

The experiment didn’t solve my individual quandaries about money, but it did work on and through me over the years. It helped me see that injustice will not be solved by self-flagellation. Working for justice takes systemic thinking, collective action, and analysis about where power accrues—no just money. And further, it helped me experience that being a good person is as much about being conscious about my presence and the way I share it as it is about money and the way I spend it.   

I did give away a lot of money—quite unscientifically. I tried to reflect on what issues and organizations I was most drawn to and then just write some checks. It felt okay, but mostly it felt like nothing. I didn’t miss the money. It wasn’t large enough that any of the organizations were visibly changed, although, of course, they were all gracious. It was somewhat like flossing—something I knew I should do to maintain my integrity, but not something that actually inspired me. My philanthropy did not make me feel any less conflicted about the role of money in my life. 

Again, these actions I took were not solutions to systemic problems. They were simply what I could do at the time to honor my own struggle, to act in the face of a lot of sadness, to create community, and to try to compel others in my life to ask some of the same questions that I was feeling stripped bare by. It turns out my instinct was not only a saving grace for me but also a gift to a lot of other people. By honoring my own stuck places, I invited in others as my teachers and companions. It was generative and kept me just the right amount uncomfortable, just the right amount confused, and, most importantly, not alone. 

I have never received that kind of an advance again, which does not make the questions I was and have been asking ever since null and void. But it does inform the answers. I did need some security in order to continue writing at times when my haphazard freelance life wasn’t producing paychecks. Owning my own apartment—I made the down payment with some of that original advance money—has been a massive source of comfort for me through the end of a nine-year relationship and lots of professional ups and downs. It has been a refuge for friends going through hard times, a meeting place for organizers and bloggers, a cozy home for all my books. 

Do I deserve this sense of comfort more than anyone else? No. But I deserve it just as everyone deserves it. Comfort, of course, is culturally constructed too, but when I’m snuggling on my couch next to my cat and thinking how held I feel by this brick and mortar in an otherwise chaotic, intense life, the comfort feels very authentically real.

These days, at 35, I have relatively consistent work that I find deeply fulfilling, and I am partnered with someone whom I love dearly and who is also invested in closing the gap between his values and his daily choices. I find that there are new questions to take on: What happens when my daughter grows up? What does she need? What will society try to convince me that she needs? How do I hear my own knowing amid the deafening roar of the dominant culture?

This last quandary, for me, is really the kicker: How do I locate what is most profoundly known in my gut and translate it for my everyday life while people in my own community, not to mention the insecurity-inducing advertisers, influence me otherwise? 

My parents still believe that some savings are crucial for a stable family. My partner is much less prone to extremes than I am: He sees value in traditional philanthropy and also in more radical ways of redistributing wealth. He’s not kept up nights—as I am—about these questions. My friends are either totally immersed in these ideas but not redistributing wealth of their own or wholly unconcerned with these questions. 

I could have shouted from the apex of that hike with my parents: “I take responsibility for myself! Screw the rest of you!” I could have come up with an arbitrary number for how much money I will keep each year to meet my subsistence-level needs and redistribute the rest in grassroots community projects that I become involved in. But I don’t earn, save, or redistribute money in a vacuum. Such an approach would be like falling into the reverse trap of the American Dream ideology—that just as I could accumulate wealth independently, I could redistribute it independently. Instead, I am interconnected to a community that I love very much, starting with my partner and my daughter. We share a life. In fact, I believe that I “share lives” with so many of my friends and extended family; we are responsible for one another. 

My most deeply held value is that we are all in this together, so if I cannot come up with financial practices that resonate and feel supported by the people I love the most, what does that mean about my practices? If I cannot ask people questions and have discussions that make us all feel smarter, more spiritually aligned, more supported, then what is unwise about my questions or the way I am asking them? 

The real quest is not to be on that hike alone, making solitary decisions about “my money” or living my values (some of them at least) in a very pure, self-satisfying way. The real quest is to live into the answers of my most painful questions in community, to be fierce and gentle, inventive and dogged, loving and provocative. 

I want to live a life that is continuously being remade by what I learn from other people. I want to be shaped by and shape others, not just with my words but also with my actions. I want to feel a sense of necessary urgency and also be patient with my learning and the learning of those around me. I want to be courageous and be in community. The art of living my values is—as I see it—an endless communal adventure. §


Courtney E. Martin is a writer living in Oakland. She is a columnist at On Being with Krista Tippet, the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and the Co-Founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. Read more about her work at courtneyemartin.com or follow her @courtwrites.