“The Really Poor” & The Man Who Quit Money
“The surest asceticism is the bitter insecurity and labor and nonentity of the really poor. To be utterly dependent on other people. To be ignored and despised and forgotten. To know little of respectability or comfort. To take orders and work hard for little or no money: it is a hard school, and one which most pious people do their best to avoid.” Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 250.
This quote by Thomas Merton is the perfect encapsulation of a marvelous book that came out last year called “The Man Who Quit Money” In it, the story is told of Daniel Suelo whose life leads him to give up completely on the security of financial means. He does in fact become utterly dependent on other people. His efforts to share his own insights are ignored and ineffective. His God is deconstructed and lost. And yet, the quite compelling claim is that, in this, he finds salvation. In his own vulnerability and failure, an image of the good life emerges. It’s crazy, but it works. Why?
From the perspective of Ernest Becker’s work, the vulnerability described here gets the “really poor” further down the road of spirituality than the rest of us in that it removes so many of the things the rest of us take to be the source of our security and esteem. The reality of death (both on the level of meaning and biology) is not so easily denied for the “really poor.” For the “really poor” the attempt to be our own maker, the causa sui project, is systematically subverted.
Yet, it’s not mere destitution that is salvific, it’s the way such vulnerability removes our false securities and therefore opens up the possibility for true faith. In clinging to our false securities we never encounter the transcendent security that alone holds the power to enliven any and all things.
This can be seen in the following way. Naturally, we desire self-esteem (significance), security (freedom from the threat of ‘death’ in the broad and narrow senses), and control (the power to achieve esteem and security). The causa sui project seeks to fix these desires in either our own self or, when this fails, in some social or metaphysical power more durable than our individual self. The problem arises from the fact that we desire more than temporary and relative security and esteem. The unlimited drive of human self-transcendence leads inescapably to the desire for unlimited esteem and unlimited security. The sticking point lies in the simple fact that nothing in all created reality possesses the power to give us such esteem and security. “…[T]he skull will grin in at the banquet”, as William James said.
And yet, we try. The engine of the capitalist enterprise is fueled on our efforts, and the doctors of persuasion give their lives to inflaming the illusion. In the realm of politics, the the fear of insecurity and the promise of its removal are the basic carrot and stick used to goad us along. Even religion turns God and prayer into a technology that, properly manipulated, will secure one’s place in a heaven beyond and remove from life boredom, financial woes, and relational strife.
To become “really poor” flies in the face of this logic. To be “really poor” is to enter the insecurity, the lack of esteem. The terrifying claim is this: the only way our unconditional security and esteem can be laid hold of is by the release of all efforts to secure them, even, and perhaps especially, religiously. Much as Paul Tillich once said, only then is it possible for the God beyond God to appear as that transcendent security and source of unconditional esteem. Everything must thusly die in order to live. Daniel Suelo gives us a beautiful image of this movement. His life shows how, once freed from the causa sui project, everything can be returned to us as pure gift rather than possession, money, shelter, food, friends, lovers, nation, even God, even our very self. The only condition is that never again can anything be possessed. We must remain forever, “really poor” in whatever circumstances life brings. Only then will we be free. Only then will we be rich beyond understanding.