Jackie Summers looks at how we value money. And how we value life.
A thought experiment:
You’re walking down a deserted street, when you see in front of you, a $100 bill. As a condition of the experiment, there is absolutely no chance of returning it to its original owner. You bend down to pick it up; it’s crumpled into a ball, and lying in a pool of rainwater. When you uncrumble it, there’s a corner torn, but it is in fact, without question, a $100 bill.
What do you do?
How you answer lies in how you relate to money. For the millionaire, a $100 bill may be beneath their notice. For the destitute, $100 could change the world.
While there are infinite possible options in this scenario, the average response is “pick it up.” The reason: because it’s a $100 bill. Its worth is not diminished by its condition. It is worth what it is worth.
Human life is a $100 bill.
When you’re born, you are given one intrinsic unit of worth. In this life, there will be days when you are “freshly minted” and days when you are alone on a deserted street, crumpled up into a ball, lying in a puddle, pieces of you torn. No one is worth more or less than you, and nothing that happens so long as your heart beats and you draw air can change this. No human life–male, female, gay, straight, transgendered, black, white, asian, hispanic, physically challenged–is worth more or less than any other.
How we value life–any life, including our own–depends on how we relate to that life. This is the difference between intrinsic and relative value. Family, friends, people in your community, classmates, co-workers–people you believe share your goals, joys, challenges, even your traumas–are all people you will place higher value on.
By extension, people we are exposed to who appear to mirror a facet of experience are also more highly valued. Athletes, singers, actors, politicians–despite being total strangers, many feel connected to celebrities, simply because they’re exposed to them.
People to whom we are not exposed–either by circumstance or choice–are harder to relate to. While their lives have the same intrinsic worth as those we care about, without some sense of shared human experience, we value them less.
We value what we relate to. In this lies all of our greatness and all of our tragedy.
An experiment in empathy:
A life ends. Do you care?
How you answer lies in how you relate to people. The x-factor in solving this equation seems to be: who’s life was it?
Was it a blood relation, a friend, an acquaintance? Was the person elderly, infirm, or just a child? Did they speak the language you speak, live within the borders of the nation you call home, watch the television shows that make you laugh, listen to the songs that make you dance? Did they practice your religion or your sexual preferences? Did they look like you, dress like you, embrace your ideologies? How did you relate to them, if at all?
Again, infinite possible responses. One life may be worth one life, but without context, it either means everything to us, or nothing at all. This is a defining statement on who we are as individuals: life is not diminished by whether or not we value it.
This is not to say that it is possible or even plausible to value all life equally. It’s not how we’re built; we will always care more about the people close to us than strangers. The world is too big, and we all have limited capacity, limited time; an upper ceiling to our compassion. There’s only so much emotion anyone can expend in any given day.
This is to say: how we value life—any life and not just those we can relate to—might make the difference in whether we survive as a species. Maybe it’s time we find a better way to relate to each other, as mutual inhabitants of a planet. Maybe it’s time we recognize that every life—including and especially those we can’t or don’t relate to–is still of equal worth.
The day we admit we are all the $100 bill—when we finally discover that, ultimately our similarities outweigh our differences—will be the day we can rightfully claim we are not simply inhabitants, but citizens of planet Earth.