By Tim Hayes

Is anything real?  No, seriously.  Are the things we value so much actually worth what we think?  Sometimes it’s worth wondering whether so much of what we stress and worry and work and cheat and skirt the rules for actually exists.

Like money, for instance.  Who has it, who wants it, who needs it.  Consider what people are willing to do to get it, keep it, and protect it.  But, at the basest elemental level, what IS it?  What is money?  Rectangles of paper and linen printed with special inks to show numbers, letters, and pictures of famous people?

If you picked up the same piece of material, cut into the same rectangular shape, but with nothing printed on it, would it still carry the same meaning to you?  Of course not.

But the fancy rectangles we lust for feature that magic phrase: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private,” and that seems to make all the difference.  The force and power of the United States federal government stands behind the currency, they say.  Which ain’t bad, but ain’t airtight, either.  The point, though, is that this is a subjective exercise.  It’s all a matter of opinion.

At their simplest essence, viewed from a purely objective perspective, those rectangular dollars are nothing more than blotches of ink on a slip of paper and linen.  That’s it.  The same thing happens when you write a check.  You’re scratching and spreading ink on a piece of paper with some funny looking numbers across the bottom, and handing it to a merchant or credit card company or another person – who then takes it to a bank, assuming that the same number of dollars for whatever number you wrote will somehow go into their account.

Which brings us around again to the basic question: Is money even real?  Where’s the tangible, prove-it, show-me evidence of all this assigned value?  Or are we just pushing the same pile of intrinsically valueless currency around in some kind of sick Kafka-esque tragedy?

I mean, does an enormous pile of diamonds, gold bars, rare Honus Wagner baseball cards, and first-edition Billie Holiday 78-rpm albums exist somewhere, to back up the value assigned to all of the dollars floating around our economy?  And, even if such a treasure trove did exist, from where would its value derive?  Who says gold is worth so much?  And why do we all agree to something that, in the end, can be seen as completely arbitrary?

Do you see what I’m getting at?  It’s all so thoroughly subjective!  Money allegedly flows in and out of budgets and accounts every day.  Think of your own simple checking account.  Then think of the financial statements of the corner market.  Then consider the enormous budgets of huge conglomerates.  Then multiply those examples by many millions of individuals and organizations.

All of those numbers going up and down, I owe you, you owe me, savings and investments, overdrafts, deficits and debt – but is all of this just an illusion?  Nothing more than an artificial construct?  How much of our lives have become slaves to accounting, numbers on a ruse of a scorecard, columns of figures on paper that cause us grief, anxiety, happiness, comfort, fear, greed, and a thousand other emotions?  Where does the value behind all of these numbers rest?  And who gets to assign that value?

Is money just a big joke?  And is God the only one who gets it?

If you think about this too much or too deeply, it will make you crazy.  Or an existentialist.  Or both.  It will not, however, make you a calmer person.

But this will.

At the recent memorial celebration for legendary golfer, pitchman, aviator, and philanthropist Arnold Palmer, one theme came through time and again with every speaker who remembered their friend, mentor, fellow competitor, or grandfather.  The great sports columnist Gene Collier in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette closed his piece on Palmer’s emotional service with these words:

“At the end of all our days, it will not be about who we knew or what we owned or even what we accomplished. All that any of us will have is the way we treated people.”

You want to know what’s real?  Where real worth and true value can really and truly be found?  Read those two sentences again.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes