The aftertaste of spending, action as pickaxes for truth and defining sacrifice

Have you ever spent your money in a way that immediately invokes feelings of guilt, regret or unease? I definitely have, but never mustered enough curiosity to examine more closely into why these experiences come about.

Most recently, I started thinking more about this question after being motivated by experiences of spending money that were complete polar opposites to those described above — experiences that held no tinges of guilt, regret or notions of sacrifice.

“If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a ‘sacrifice’ for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.

Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achieves that which is of the greatest personal (and rational) importance to him.”

It does not seem to be correlated to prices or extravagance, it can be as simple as a slow cup of filter coffee on a weekend. It can be $5 or $500, but what they all share in common is this permeating, deep seated sense of satisfaction, appreciation and enjoyment. A transaction, sure, but a willing exchange of money for the thing I had really wanted.

“What do you really want?” is a deceptively simple question. In my own experiences, it is a question that is extremely difficult to get to the bottom of — and no amount of research or thinking or preconceiving reliably leads to perfect outcomes. I have a reasonable sense of what I do really want today, but in 12 months, in 5 years or a decade further down the line? The projections start to get real fuzzy.

The mishaps that happen for me along this windy path involve the pursuit of material things that appear tantalising and alluring at initial impression, but ultimately fall completely flat during ownership.

Well, you should have chose differently.” would be a naïve statement to make in hindsight, because it seems like the only way to really discern good from bad, of what is suitable and what is not, is by going through all of the stages from beginning to end. The formulation of desire, the adventurous pursuit, the achievement of outcomes and the aftereffects that follow from standing at the peak.

Instead of feeling guilty that the outcomes did not fall perfectly into one’s favour, perhaps another way of looking at it would be to observe all of these experiences as data points — mile markers that seek to reveal more of the truths towards uncovering the mysterious question of, “what do you really want?” To lean away from experiencing them as immobilising personal failures and to treat them objectively as higher fidelity glimpses into the reality at hand.

Thinking more broadly on the topic of money, one of the things I have always spent relentlessly on is food. If money can be considered as a tangible expression of one’s internal values, food is definitely one of the elements that ranks very highly on my list. So much so that one of my depictions of wealth is to be able to buy entire tables worth of food, at any time and in any place—to be able to pay for tabs without blinking an eye at the total sum.

To be in a position where I could spend money frivolously on food would not be a practice of painful sacrifice, as objectively defined by the activity of expending money. Instead, such freedom would be an ultimate luxury, the capacity to exchange something of lesser value (in this case, money) for something I value more (wellbeing, human connection, abundance).  

“‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus altruism gauges a man’s virtues by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less ‘selfish’ than help to those one loves).”

In the earlier examples of feeling guilty or unease after spending money on something, the implicit movements happening behind the scenes was that of sacrifice, as defined by this quote. While I did not have the linguistic sophistication to express it so cleanly, I knew that something was misplaced and that a false step had occurred, based purely off witnessing the kinds of emotions that were bubbling up to the surface.

There are plenty of lessons to be taken away from such experiences of dissonance between external actions and internal values, but to me the most important thing is to continuously remind myself that it is only through the process of stepping up and walking through the fire that the lessons will reveal themselves. Not as a passive thinker, planner or strategiser — three modes of conduct that I typically default to — but as the man standing in the arena confronting reality as it appears.

"Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no automatic course of action, no automatic set of values. His senses do not tell him automatically what is good for him or evil, what will benefit his life or endanger it, what goals he should pursue and what means will achieve them, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires.

His own consciousness has to discover the answer to all these questions — but his consciousness will not function automatically… Man’s particular distinction from all other living species is the fact that his consciousness is volitional."