I once participated in an intriguing Sufi exercise where participants were separated into pairs. One would ask the other, “Tell me, friend, what do you know of money?” After the question was posed, the questioner stared into his partner’s eyes and waited for the answer. When the respondent provided it, the questioner asked once again, “Tell me, friend, what do you know of money?” The process was repeated until the responder had exhausted her abilities to answer the question, generally after five or six rounds. Each time the question was posed, the respondent was forced to reconsider the limitations of her answer. In turn, each answer went deeper, much past the usual “more is better” response.

Now, dear reader, it is your turn. Stop reading for a moment and put yourself in her spot. Now imagine a friendly inquisitor asking you to thoughtfully respond to the query: “So, tell me, friend, what do you know of money?”

Now consider your answer carefully and completely. It might even be helpful to write it down. Now, with your answer complete, allow the question to be repeated again and then again until you have exhausted your abilities to go deeper. If you are honest with yourself, new insights should emerge.

We work with money every day, handling it for both clients and ourselves. Most of us have studied its workings and tried to maximize its virtues for others and ourselves. We know how important money is to individuals and how much folks hurt when they don’t have it.

That said, I’ll ask again. What do we know of money? Do we even know what money is? Or where it comes from? Do we understand its requirements, its need for integrity? Do we grasp how much it has changed over the decades and centuries? Or perceive its psychosocial implications and imperatives for individuals and communities? Have you ever experienced authentic poverty, not ramen poverty but true desperation? If so, how did you deal with it?

There may be nothing more intimate than money, but it tells the truth. It contains our darkest secrets and our brightest lights. It illuminates our souls like nothing else. In profound manners, money shows us where our hearts are.

Accordingly, money remains a taboo. Culturally, most don’t talk about it; mostly they can’t talk about it. Even between spouses there are secrets and deceptions. We know that good money habits are survival issues, yet many of us do not take the steps required to ensure thriving and surviving in later life.

Some claim that money is the second most addressed topic in the Bible (the first being the kingdom of God). Without getting into an excruciating biblical exegesis, suffice it to say that my studies show that notions of integrity, life purpose and spirituality/anti-materialism are among those concepts generally underscored.

From the wisdom perspectives of the ancients can we see how money has changed its demands on people from the early 20th century until now while imposing strong existential challenges? Could we conceive of alternatives to currently employed international trading currencies for certain functions? Or do we imagine how much we are now asked to subsidize/enable our extended life spans with an esoteric something based solely on promises? Where are the counterbalances to those impersonal macroeconomic conversations of academics and industry thought leaders who generally forget there are real humans on the other ends of the statistics?

I suggest we have a deep and collective need for intelligent conversations about money. This is not only useful for helping folks get a grip on money as a force, but for grasping its social relevance. Today, the psychological aspects of money are receiving ever greater attention as psychologists and others finally notice that money is at the root of many crucial personal issues. As their work matures, they will undoubtedly develop better techniques for addressing the relationships between people and money.

But even that field misses the point that money is a quite meaningless social construct without the human beings who create it and trade in it. It is not enough to talk about how money affects “me.” We have to talk about how it affects “us.” We have to expand the personal questions to relevant social explorations.

Yet even this approach too often treats money as an immutable sort of proposition foreordained by God. From goldbugs and the hard money crowd to fiscal dimwits who fail to grasp its limitations, few folks seem to grasp what makes money money. Regrettably, they fail to recognize that our everyday money is, in fact, created by keystrokes at the Federal Reserve plus our need to pay taxes in dollars. While effectively dismissing complementary currencies as potentially viable approaches for addressing pressing social issues, they bury themselves in the notion that money is finally all about the shiny stuff. 

Yet our social structures are increasingly reliant on money, and these things are hard to measure: physical and mental health, child and elder care, public safety, education and other intangibles.