The most valuable currencies of our lives
The financial world is fixated on foreign currencies right now. The current turmoil in international markets has led to a dollar appreciation against most leading currencies, leaving many wringing their hands in worry about all-time lows, as the euro, the pound, the yen and many others continue their steep plunge.
A little history lesson for younger readers of this column: when I was a boy, you needed just seven Kenya shillings to buy a dollar; and just twenty bob to buy a sterling pound—for the longest time. That was a gentler world, less prone to sudden currency shock.
A lifetime of observation tells me, however, that when it comes to matters financial and matters macroeconomic, these are just swings and roundabouts, necessary vicissitudes. Human economic life operates in cycles. We under-do things, and then we overdo them. We overshoot, and then we overcompensate. We live large, and then we have to hunker down. We become too timid, and then too bold. Wars trigger boom and bust; interlinked economies swing up and down together.
To spend a life worrying about these swings is to waste it. There are deeper, more meaningful things to concern us than the impact of human activity on currencies and exchange rates. Those things usually resolve themselves after the necessary corrections are made. Let the moneymen and those paid to track financial currencies do the worrying.
For most of us, there are some currencies we have present in our lives that we barely pay attention to, and barely expend. They sit right there, ready to be used, but rarely are. Usually because we are too busy worrying about where the dollar is vs the shilling.
What are these currencies? You know them well: kindness, generosity, compassion, empathy, and helpfulness. They cost nothing to use; and they only benefit us in their usage; yet we hoard them inside us, to shrivel and be wasted.
Every human is born with a treasury of these currencies. We have it in us to be kind, to be giving, to be benevolent, to have big hearts. But then what we call “real life” kicks in. We have to earn our crust; we have to compete against our peers to grasp scarce resources; we learn to become greedy and self-absorbed. Some are driven to self-centred behaviour by desperate poverty; others become more deranged the more money they make.
And so, the common concern and the prevalent discourse of modern humans is often the direction of the exchange rate, the interest rate, the inflation rate. We barely stop to think about the rate at which our shared humanity ebbs and flows.
It costs us nothing to be kind. The kinder we are, the better the world around us is. When we think generously and for collective gain, we all benefit. When we see kindness in others, it affects us. We feel an elemental regard for something so evidently noble. We want to reciprocate, and to emulate. Kindness transmits. To those who give it out, it is its own reward; but it also yields a different, more impersonal reward: that of making the world a better place and humans better creatures.
I am compelled to write these words today because my family and I recently encountered some remarkable kindness during our travels. Being on the receiving end of the generosity and concern of others gave me pause. I stopped worrying about the exchange rate of monetary currencies, and started giving more thought to how the currencies of human nature are exchanged.
When all is said and done, the monetary register will barely feature in the real scorecard of our lives. It would be a shallow person indeed who would go to their grave counting only their final net worth. Our true impact in this life is something else altogether. Certainly, we cannot ignore the homo economicus in the human; we must also look after our material needs and those of our families, and do our best to grow and protect our incomes. But that is not where the real gold sits.
Think about all those who give you a warm glow in your life; those whose passing causes a deep sadness but also a deep joy. Were they the hucksters and shysters, the connivers and manipulators? No. Our deepest respect is reserved for those we knew who were kind and benevolent, as a habit, a trait. Those are the people, and those are the practices, that light up our lives—without any pyrotechnics or even a record. Real kindness is not showy or performative; it is merely an expression of a way of being.
These quiet currencies flow through the human network every day. They call no attention to themselves; they are not recorded or graphed or tracked. Yet these are the flows that make us higher-order beings.
There is every opportunity to find these hidden currencies and use them. I hope you will become a big spender.
(Sunday Nation, 23 October 2022)