The other day, I'm on the metro when a man gets on and starts yelling at everyone to give him money. When it was my turn, I told him I didn't have any (which was actually true).
"You're lying!" He snaps at me.
"I'm not. I don't have any money on me." I respond. He eyes me up and down suspiciously to evaluate the level of truth.
"You have money," he decides. "I know your type. You're rich with your nails and your hair and your clothes," he says in disgust. I actually feel a little flattered.
His disgust at my stinginess somehow translates in my brain to a compliment about my savviness and style. I know this is not what he means at all. He's not complimenting my ability to look good on a small budget. He actually thinks I'm a rich bitch who won't give money to the homeless. I know this. But it somehow still feels like a compliment. I'm trying to get him away, but he won't leave.
"LOOK, I WILL ACTUALLY SHOW YOU I DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY ON ME." I shout, thinking this will deter him. He gives me a skeptical look as I pull out my wallet and twenty cents fall out.
"This is all I have," I tell him as I hand him the money. He looks at me with contempt and throws the money at my chest, the coins dropping to the floor. Is he serious? Angry and embarrassed, I throw them back. We're causing a scene and people are now staring.
Eventually, he gives up on me and walks over to the next person. Right before he leaves the train he makes a point to walk over to me again. He picks up a loose coin that rolled over near the door and hurls it towards me again before making a swift exit. I lower my shades.
Later that week, I pass by an outdoor flea market and decide against my better judgment to take a look. "How much is this?" I ask the vendor as I pick up a caramel colored fur coat from a bundle of wrinkled clothes laying on the ground.
"Twenty-five euro. That pile is for rich people," he says in a thick Eastern European accent. I laugh. I look at his face to search for a smile but there isn't any. He's not joking. Does he think I'm rich? I wonder. It's the second time this week someone has made a comment about my perceived wealth. I am wearing an electric blue fur coat and Mykita gold plated sunglasses. However, I'm not rich. Not at all.
I'm actually pretty broke. The sunglasses were a Christmas gift from my boyfriend. I decide to set the record straight, but when I tell the man about the contents of my bank account, he doesn't hear me, doesn't care, or both. I guess the sunglasses aren't helping my case. The couple standing next to me look at me with pity and laugh. I'm embarrassed. I'm unemployed and living off my savings. I shouldn't be out shopping. Especially in the rich people pile.
"I guess I'll have to look in the poor pile with you guys then," I sigh loudly, turning to glance at the couple. This time, I don't smile. They glare at me. I turn away. Satisfied and full of pride, I end up finding the most beautiful brown leather belted trench coat for next to nothing. It fits me like a dream. Sure, it's wrinkled and I have yet to wear it but to me, shopping is like hunting. It's mostly for sport.
Is my feeling of pride linked to money or something deeper? It's no secret that money changes the way we think and behave. The pursuit of wealth can lead to compulsive behavior and addiction. Am I becoming addicted to my perceived wealth? Why do I keep buying shit when I don't have the money to do so?
The effects of excessive materialism are pretty damaging to the human psyche. An international survey of over 90,000 people published in the journal BMC Medicine found an unsettling correlation between wealth and mental illness. Other experiments have shown that humans who identify greed with positive values are more inclined to operate immorally in various situations such as breaking the law while driving, lying to increase chances of winning, stealing, throwing money at homeless people, and other forms of unethical behavior. And while I've never cut off a pedestrian in traffic (the only reason could be because I don't even own a car to do so), I've decided that my behaviors lately are bordering on the precipice of sociopathic. I mean, I threw money at a HOMELESS MAN.
Over hot chocolate (is there a less sexy drink?) I recount these recent events to a friend of mine. Playing devil's advocate, she indulges me.
"Maybe it's not that you're excited about money itself. It could be a sense of empowerment that you feel when people perceive you in a way that you wish you saw yourself."
I look at her. "You have a milk moustache," I respond. She rolls her eyes and continues.
"It could also be the feeling of pride you have when you're able to dress like you have champagne money when you're really on a beer budget."
She has a point. After all, I have been riddled with shame by my actions over the course of the week. Surely, sociopaths don't experience intense guilt, right?
"So, maybe I'm not an unbridled egomaniac, but just a normal human with a normal-sized ego and poor judgment?"
"A normal human with a big ego and a shopping addiction," she adds. This diagnosis seems bleak, but it's better than my previous one. I'm staring into space, envisioning myself forty years from now, an old lady in a small apartment buried under mountains of fur coats, shoes, and jewelry, accompanied by crippling debt and no friends. I shudder. I don't want to be Iris Apfel's mean and poor doppelgänger. I want to be Iris Apfel. I need help.
I've decided it's time to put myself on a spiritual and mental cleanse. Besides putting myself on a shopping ban (it only does bad things to me) I've decided that it's time to start cultivating compassion in my everyday life. I hope that I am capable of transforming myself into an empathetic and enlightened zen human. The kind of person who only radiates light, positivity, and shimmering cheekbones wherever she goes.
The only problem is this — how does one become truly altruistic? In my opinion, it is one of the most difficult —albeit, rewarding — transformations that a human being can go through. I'm dark and negative by nature, and I'm truly tired of it.