Money still facilitates the sharing and exchange of goods and services, but somewhere along the way, the power we gave money outstripped its original utilitarian role.

If we peel back thousands of years of cultural conditioning and assumptions to take a fresh look at money, we can begin with some very basic observations. Money is not a product of nature. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Pennies don’t rain from heaven. Money is an invention, a distinctly human invention. It is a total fabrication of our genius. We made it up and we manufacture it. It is an inanimate object that has appeared in many different forms in its more than 2,500-to-3,500-year history, whether we’re talking about shells or stones or ingots of precious metals, a paper bill or a blip on the computer screen. From the very beginning, money was invented to facilitate the sharing and exchanging of goods and services among individuals and groups of people. Money still facilitates the sharing and exchange of goods and services, but somewhere along the way the power we gave money outstripped its original utilitarian role.

Now, rather than relating to money as a tool we created and control, we have come to relate to money as if it is a fact of nature, a force to be reckoned with. This stuff called money, mass-produced tokens or paper bills with no more inherent power than a notepad or a Kleenex, has become the single most controlling force in our lives.

Money has only the power that we assign to it, and we have assigned it immense power. We have given it almost final authority. If we look only at behavior, it tells us that we have made money more important than we are, given it more meaning than human life. Humans have done and will do terrible things in the name of money. They have killed for it, enslaved other people for it, and enslaved themselves to joyless lives in pursuit of it.

In the name of money, humankind has done immense damage to Mother Earth. We’ve destroyed rain forests, dammed and decimated rivers, clear-cut redwoods, overfished rivers and lakes, and poisoned our soil with chemical wastes from industry and agriculture. We’ve marginalized whole segments of our society, forced the poor into housing projects, allowed urban ghettos to form, exploited whole nations to get cheaper labor, and witnessed the fall of thousands—in fact, millions—of people, many of them young, caught up in selling drugs for money, hurting others and wasting their own promise in a life of crime, enslavement, or incarceration. We’ve perpetuated age-old traditions that assign men and women different and unequal access to money and the power we place in it, subjugating women and distorting men’s expectations and obligations with their privileged access to it.

Distortions in our relationship with money emerge from a lifetime of these seemingly innocuous everyday experiences in the money culture.

Rarely in our life is money a place of genuine freedom, joy, or clarity, yet we routinely allow it to dictate the terms of our lives and often to be the single most important factor in the decisions we make about work, love, family, and friendship. There is little that we accept so completely as the power and authority of money, and assumptions about how we should feel about it. We challenge assumptions about every other facet of life: race, religion, politics, education, sex, family, and society. But when it comes to money, we accept it not only as a measure of economic value but also as a way of assigning importance and worth to everyone and everything else in the world. When we talk about success in life, money is almost always the first, and sometimes the only, measure we use for it.

In our private lives, we all, at one time or another, have demeaned and devalued ourselves, taken advantage of people, or engaged in other actions we’re not proud of in order to get or keep money or the power we believe it can buy. We’ve silenced ourselves to avoid conflicts or uncomfortable interactions over money. Our behavior around money has damaged relationships when money has been used as an instrument of control or punishment, emotional escape or manipulation, or as a replacement for love. Among families of great wealth, many have been poisoned by greed, mistrust, and a desire to control others. Their lives of privilege have cut them off from the essential experience of ordinary human interactions and authentic relationships. In lives where money is scarce, the struggle can easily become the defining theme that discounts the self-worth and basic human potential of an individual, a family, or even whole communities or cultures. For some, the chronic absence of money becomes an excuse they use for being less resourceful, productive, or responsible than they could be.

We are born into a culture defined by money,and our initial relationship with money is the product of that culture, whether it is one based primarily in poverty, in a country like Mozambique or Bangladesh, or a culture of affluence and wealth in a country like the United States or Japan. From our earliest experiences, we learn money’s place and power in our families, our communities, and in our own lives. We see who earns it and who doesn’t. We see what our parents are willing to do, and what they aren’t willing to do, to acquire money or the things money buys. We see how money shapes personal perspective and public opinion.

In our distinctly aggressive American consumer culture, even our youngest children are drawn into that fierce relationship with money. Much as we did, only more so today, they grow up in a media milieu and popular culture that encourages an insatiable appetite for spending and acquiring, without regard to personal or environmental consequences. Distortions in our relationship with money emerge from a lifetime of these seemingly innocuous everyday experiences in the money culture. Personal money issues, as well as issues of sustainability and social equity central to the human economy and the environment, are clearly rooted in the soil of our relationship with money and the money culture into which we are born and which we come to accept as natural.

From THE SOUL OF MONEY: TRANSFORMING YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY AND LIFE by Lynne Twist. Copyright © 2003 by Lynne Twist. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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