Keep your coins, I want change

The Agony of Loose Change

Part way through Midnight Mass a gentleman appeared with a plate onto which he expected money to be placed. Yet I had none. Not a penny. This was no mere faux pas. The reaction from the woman beside me was complete abhorrence. Charity, it seems, is nothing to the absence of charity. She could not know the nature of the contradiction. For had I taken money my only intention could have been to enter (there being no charge to merely walk the streets), which I had no intention of doing, and thus I took none, and thus freely entered. But such reasoning is as superficial as her Puritan reaction.

Prior I had offered to stand, such that she may sit with her companion. She reacted favourably but refused, presuming, I suppose, that we both had equal right to sit. Equality within community, especially of mutual interest and location, seems implicit. In contrast, charity of coinage is outwith immediate community. This money is evidently supposed to help those who are not known, not present. While I suspect a healthy chunk of the plate ends up funding the show, it is much easier to imagine the starving Africans of Geldofian stereotype, than relatively well endowed clergy. One cannot help but hear the echo of past Popes selling absolution from sin – the remnant of a still palpable need to fund the organisation of religion over the needs of the community of worshippers.

This is logical goodness in the heart of the beholder, who I presume is incapable of feeling the actual emotion of the one they impart good to. The anonymous interchangeability of money is wedded to abstraction, veiled in reason. Its unhealthiness is its superficiality: That its value is internalised relative solely to the giver, yet this bias is conflated, almost ulteriorly, with doing good in the world – an aim which cannot be so quantified because the value of the gift is arbitrary, its valuation dependant on an unknown receiver.

That most take such a view is not especially religious. Church and state, or if you prefer, morality and society, tend to dance in parallel. And organised church and state has been biased to reason since at least Nicea: In its most ambiguous formation as logos, “in the beginning was the word,” is unemotive. Perhaps it is incumbent upon any empire or state that rules remotely? Yet the presumption that the state binds its citizens in equality is patently untrue. And one may argue that poverty is not greatest in absolute, but in relativity – those that are forced to see what they do not have bare an entirely different sort of social suffering to those that simply do not have. That geography maintains states has meaning beyond the obvious – geography separates, compartmentalises, gathers like communities together, to a large degree in ignorance of those elsewhere.

For I took no money because at this moment my finances are those of survival, which ostensibly equates to food and shelter (and I’m not doing well on even that much), plus any remnant of my past that lingers without tangible cost. Had I consciously considered I would have to pay a toll, I would not have gone, much as I would not have gone to the cinema or taken the bus or any other of the many of actions that some think nothing of spending money on. Yet such reasoning raises multiple questions: If survival is not the life lived, is it really survival? And whose life is it anyway – am I compelled to live to an expectation in order to live with those that so expect? What determines the nature of this perpetuation? Must we always go round in circles?

Painfully aware on waking, I took a 50 pence piece in hand, and walked to St Mary’s, both fearing that I might not be allowed back in by Giles, and seeking variety of experience, another frame of reference. Fifty being the approximate cost of a discount meal forgone, thus worth considerably more at Christmas than might first seem. Edinburgh having only three cathedrals, it always seems somewhat excessive that two honour Mary, but such is history. The Episcopal Mary is distinctly Anglican, familiar from my youth, considerably more theatrical, and I perceive superficial, than the apparently dour and functional Calvinism of Scots Presbyterianism. Again themes of what I’m inclined to call fear in prayer, and happiness in unity, but here more muted than there. And as the people flocked out, the warmth of the silence was quickly replaced by the hollow echo of the wind.

(I suspect such warehousing of religion owes a lot, albeit somewhat indirectly in Scotland, to England’s Henry VIII. Monastic culture persisted religion as something to be lived.)

That my intention did not even make it inside intact should come as no surprise. On the street outside was a beggar on a trial very much like my own, albeit a week or more advanced. Who would exercise charity in person, and who would shun such for the community within? Yet in doing so, he revealed the indivisibility of the single coin I held. Not merely my lack of loose change, which compelled a single decision upon me, but the inherent tyranny of wealth as money: That one is a master to it, faced with endless decisions as to its use, decisions which cannot be easily analysed, and certainly not considered in sufficient detail relative to the magnitude of the donation.

Herein lies the paradox of good. That the predominance of reason forces decisions which can not realistically be made, and so biases decisions away from those that might have direct emotive benefit, towards abstractions. Abstractions are thus safer, but restrict good to a somewhat remote, internal emotion. That this is the case is no accident. Transferable currency is largely a function of the rise of trade with people one did not routinely know, and thus is historically comparable to the rise of wordy, written, language, which through narrative allowed emotions to be expressed to those one did not routinely know. Something so deeply rooted in social behaviour is not changed easily, even if the contemporary desire would seem to suggest something altogether less absolute.

I mused on simply throwing the coin into the gutter, eliminating its wealth from the world, and thusly levelling equality a very little, there henceforth being slightly less wealth available to cause it. This is to disown economic society, to pose the question, why have money anyway? Convenience, equality, status; fundamentals, basics, luxuries, extravagances; revenue, capital, speculation, debt; the diaspora of uses is so broad one genuinely does wonder how well suited money is to any one purpose it is put. Were money not so intrinsic to the notion of state, a much greater variety of tokenisation would surely flourish. As it is the Lewes Pound stays in Lewes, for to go further would be to court dissolution.

Rationally I should have given the 50 pence to the beggar, and turned for home. Surely in time he is me, much more so than those within were. And that’s probably why I did not. To act thus would be to become me. The acceptance of the very existentialism that seems a better description of how things seem, than how they are. (Both are, of course, contradictions, inversions; the important notion is to be aware of that, and not hang on any one absolute truth.) Rather, the decision was made for me. A maroon bag, which I later mused was designed as much for redistribution as collection (not a theory I tested) duly appeared, and the woman stood next to me – a different woman, but in many ways the same – asked me to make a donation, on which, unthinkingly, I reached forth and deposited the coin. And the agony of loose change was over in the action of an instant.

Is it always so simple? The sign on the cathedral’s donation box alerts visitors to the fact that, “it costs £1500 a day to keep this cathedral open.” That’s quite a lot of agony.