Chapter 2: The Many Forms of Slavery

Bondage to Money

Jerry despises his job. It’s not just the commute in rush-hour traffic or the overtime without pay. It’s the people he works for and with. He can’t stand their patronizing attitude, their smug sense of superiority. Jerry is low on the corporate food chain. His work serves no useful purpose apart from the bottom line. He’d love to quit and do something meaningful, like coach high-school basketball, but he can’t afford to. He simply has too many obligations, and too much debt. Besides, the benefits are decent. So he keeps showing up every morning, even though it feels like crawling into a sewer.

Hank has all the money he’ll ever need. A savvy businessman, he built the company he inherited from his father to a level of success that neither could have imagined. At 55, he sold it for a small fortune, retired, and took up golf full-time. Most of us would be envious of such a life. But Hank isn’t happy. He has millions invested in the stock market, and he lives and dies by its every fluctuation. His BlackBerry is constantly at his side so he can check his market positions. Yet his attempts to stay on top of his fortune leave him feeling all the more out of control. Should an occasion arise that requires him to spend big money, like helping with his granddaughter’s college tuition or taking the whole extended family to the Caribbean, he’ll do it, but not cheerfully. He lives in fear that one day his funds will run out. There simply won’t be enough, and he’ll die poor.

Jerry and Hank are slaves to money. Jerry is tied to his job with no hope of escape. Hank is tied to his fortune and the gyrations of the financial markets. Their money fears weigh on them as heavily as shackles.

What is it about money that creates such bondage? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our time and energy in order to make money? We treat money as if it were survival itself. If we don’t have money, we can’t buy food, shelter, and all those possessions that make life worthwhile.

Money also supports our self-image. It buys the props that define who we are: the car we drive; the clothing, watches, and jewelry we wear; the brand of beer or whiskey we drink; the places we vacation. So we work hard to get money. We pile up debt to the point where we dread opening the credit-card bills. We stockpile our scarce dollars against the hard times that surely lie ahead when we’re older and retired—always fretting, like Hank, that it won’t be enough. Could this be anything but slavery?

Bondage to Time

Sally came to see me after the sudden and unexpected death of her mother. She’d become acutely aware of the passage of time—how each year seemed to speed by faster than the last. Sally tried to push such thoughts aside and treasure the good moments with her children and friends, but when her weekends came up short each Sunday night, she plunged back into moody introspection. How many good times remained before death reached out again and claimed another of her loved ones, as it had her mother?

If money is scarce, then time is scarcer still. There are no millionaires in the world of time. We cannot bank it, saving up the hours and days to be withdrawn later and used when and where we need them most. Nor do we know the length of our days. We could live on well into our 90s, or we could find ourselves stone-cold dead tomorrow. Therefore, when we think about time, it’s almost always with an underlying sense of urgency and foreboding.

Unlike Sally, Miriam has not a moment to spare in her day for abstract thoughts about the passage of time. Getting her four kids dressed and off to school; managing the shopping, cleaning, phone calls, and errands; picking up her youngest from preschool at noon; driving the others to their after-school sports and music lessons; and then dinner, cleanup, homework . . . by the time she collapses into bed, her day feels more like a long and weary year. Miriam suffers from chronic insomnia—the most common complaint I hear in my office these days. She needs medication to fall asleep. Why? Because as she lies awake in bed, her mind is busy scouting out the next day. She works herself into a panic thinking that if she can’t shut it down and get a decent night’s sleep, there’s no way she’ll be able to function.

In our high-speed, 21st-century world we move so fast that we need pills to slow down and ease into sleep. God forbid we “waste” any time lying there awake, accomplishing nothing. When morning arrives with the blare of the alarm clock, we gulp coffee to accelerate from 0 to 60 as rapidly as possible. We gobble down fast food. We tune in to instant news and entertainment. We exchange text messages and check e-mails dozens of times a day. Without a doubt, we squeeze more out of one day than any generation in human history. Yet even with all our time-saving devices, a mere 24 hours feels insufficient.

Consequently, we run around frantically, trying to get it all done and wasting not a second. We hope that maybe, when every item on the to-do list is checked off, we might be able to relax and focus on something meaningful—or even have fun! Then we’ll have the opportunity to do the things we enjoy, time that’s liberated from this frantic bondage. “Free” time.

Except that the to-do list is never finished. Like the many-headed Hydra of Greek myth, each time we lop an item off the list, two more sprout up to replace it. The dream of free time recedes, a lovely mirage, while we struggle on to the next task, the next day, week, month, and year, enslaved as ever.