There have been times when I have fantasized about having a life still of this world, but resolutely beyond the rat race. I live on a farm, play with animals, weave baskets, and the crops never fail. It is a world devoid of customers, bosses and the general public. It is populated only by friends who bring tureens full of soup and loaves of warm bread wrapped in linen kitchen towels. I saw this world briefly in the heartland of Minnesota when I was four years old. It was probably Lake Wobegon.
It is this fantasy that has made me curious about people who are trying to live it. So as I study the social and economic upheavals of our time, I also look for those few courageous souls who find a way to break from the conventional path of life in the U.S.
Nowhere is this attempt to live a singularly defined life more thoughtfully rendered than in Mark Sundeen’s book, The Man Who Quit Money. It is the story of his friend, Daniel Suelo, who throughout his adulthood seeks to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with the outward expression of his life within human society.
Sundeen carefully, methodically builds our understanding of Daniel’s journey through his religious upbringing, college years, social maturation and his many attempts to find meaningful work. Through the use of letters, diary entries, and the recollection of friends, this man emerges complete as we see his faith transformed. He makes several attempts over many years but eventually realizes he has in many ways already come to terms with how to live without money.
This is an intelligent work, a story that could have easily made its subject appear little more than a tragic fool, but Sundeen neatly avoids that by crafting his narrative based on Daniel’s search for meaning. I was unexpectedly moved even while I didn’t relate to every confrontation or emotional upheaval. A universal struggle threads continuously throughout the story, and Sundeen's observations bring to light a compassionate hindsight making sense of each conundrum.
The Man Who Quit Money reveals how Daniel’s insight and intellectual inquiry develops over time. The evolution of his attitude toward poverty and wealth is woven into the context of current events and other writers and spiritual leaders. He concludes:
Money is merely the most convenient means of keeping track of the much deeper, and timeless, human inclination towards credit and debt.
Yet we humans have stolen payment and debt from the gods. We cannot freely give or freely receive anything. We live under constant obligation.
No matter your feelings about this guy, it is difficult to walk away from this book without having at least a few of your ideas about living with and working for money tweaked into a more amorphous shape. This is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in 2012, and the beauty of it is that you don’t have to relate to Daniel’s struggle in order to find what sooner or later nearly everyone questions.