I’ve heard more than a few jokes about men who, after finding the proverbial genie in a bottle, manage to screw up their three wishes. The one that comes to me now involves a man who walks into a bar with another man, who is about twelve inches tall, sitting on his shoulder. Without a word, the first man takes out of a case he is carrying a small piano and a stool that he places on the bar. The foot-high man climbs down from the other one’s shoulder, also without a word, sits down at the piano, and begins to play the most beautiful music that anyone in the place has ever heard. Inevitably someone asks the regular-sized where he found this musical treasure, and he explains that he was walking alone on a beach in the Mediterranean when found a bottle with a genie inside. The genie granted him three wishes. I don’t remember what the first two were, but the last one, the man explains, produced the piano player. Someone asks him why he wished for a twelve-inch tall piano player and he says, “Well, it was just my luck that the genie was hard of hearing. He thought I asked for a twelve-inch pianist.” Ba dum dum.
There’s another one, though I only remember the punchline, where the guy gets turned into a tampon because he doesn’t recognize the ambiguity in how he phrases his desire for heterosexual prowess, and there are at least two more hiding somewhere in the back of my brain, absolutely refusing to let me tease them out, so I’m not sure if they also poke fun at the absurdities of conventional male heterosexual desire or if they just poke fun at greed. I am, however, reasonably certain that their humor lies, just like the two examples I gave above, in marking the difference between asking for what you think will make your life easier or better or more immediately profitable and having the courage and honesty to ask for what you really want.
The thing is, of course, that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. A man with a small penis who has endured the teasing and humiliation that will inevitably fall on him in this society may truly believe he needs those twelve inches, if only to silence his tormentors, both past and future. More to the point, though, his desire to silence them, if he allows it to consume him, would very likely blind him to the fact that a large penis would still not guarantee him love or happiness or even good and frequent sex.
I am, though for reasons that have nothing to with sex, confronted with this distinction between what I think I need and what I really want right now. Like almost everyone else I know, I could use more money, not because I want more luxury in my life, but mostly because I have debt that I need to repay. It’s honest debt, in the sense that my wife and I incurred it to pay for things we could not afford at the time but that we could not put off doing any longer; but it is debt nonetheless, and it is heavy, and I spend more time and energy than I would like thinking about what we need to do to get ourselves out from under it as quickly as possible. Inevitably, this thinking leads to fantasies of all the ways that enough money to pay off the debt might fall, or that I might facilitate its fall, into my lap. These are not paralyzing fantasies, by which I mean they do not prevent me from doing what I need to do to pay the debt off responsibly, but I am conscious of how frequently they grow beyond the goal of balancing our budget to become stories about how “if only we had enough money, all our problems would be solved.”
If I were living in a TV show, or a movie, or a certain kind of short story, that would be the moment the genie appeared, and the test would be whether I had the willpower to resist making the easy wish, which inevitably leads to trouble. For I would be fooling myself–both the fictional me I just created and the me who is right now typing these words–if I tried to pretend that having money, especially the large amounts of money I fantasize about, does not bring with it its own constraints. Those constraints might be in some ways easier to live with than the constraints of debt, at least on the surface. After all, who would not want to have a nicer home, better clothes, more luxurious vacations and still be able to send their kids to the best college and leave them a substantial inheritance in the process. Still, having that kind of money, especially if you did not have it before, will constraint your life.
At the very least, for example, you’d have to deal not only with how having money would shape differently the expectations, hopes, and ambitions you have for your life, but also the hopes, ambitions, and expectations of those around you. Having that kind of money will bring change to the relationships you have, even with the people who are closest to you, and those changes can end up constraining your life in ways that are at least as difficult to live with as the constraints that debt forces on you. As well, once you have that kind of money, you will have to start worrying about managing it, about growing it and making it last. You will have to concern yourself with whether or not you can trust the money managers you will have to hire, and you will have to decide what should happen to your money after you die.
I realize that most of you reading this are probably thinking, as I often do when I hear about very wealthy people, “I should only have such problems,” but the fact is that, because I don’t know what having “such problems” is like, I don’t really know that I would prefer them to the problems I have now. What would having money and the power that comes with it–two things I’ve never before had in my life–do to me? That’s the question this week’s Sa’di Says confronts me with. Here’s the beginning:
The soldier kneeling before the king gave this report: The fort had been taken; the enemy’s forces were prisoners of war. By his majesty’s good fortune, the entire district was now pacified and subject to his rule.
He was an Arab king, sick with old age and waiting to die. “This message is not for me,” he sighed deeply, “but for my true enemies, the heirs to my throne.”
Why would this king see the heirs to his throne, his children, as his “true enemies” rather than the people of the district his forces had just conquered? Because whether the people of that district had been under his rule and were rebelling against it or whether they were a people he had just conquered in order to expand his own kingdom, they were fighting not to obtain his power, but to be free of it. His heirs, on the other hand, are by definition waiting to acquire what is his, and that raises the question not just of their motivation and intent, but also of what the king’s life has meant to him and what it will mean to those he leaves behind. His own assessment is not a good one. “I’ve lived,” he says, “until the end of my desires,
each one fulfilled according to my wish,
but the pleasures of my past will not return,
and so the time I spent on them has brought
The “genie,” in other words, has been kind to him, granting him everything he wanted, though by “genie,” of course, I mean the power of this throne, not a wish-granting, supernatural being. Still, now that he’s on his deathbed, the king realizes that both his desires and his pleasure in fulfilling them–which is really the memory of that pleasure, not the pleasure itself–have come to an end. When he dies, he will leave it all behind. Moreover, to the extent that the pleasure itself is embodied in the material wealth of his kingdom, that wealth, now worthless to him, will pass on to his enemy-heirs. “Death’s hand has struck the drum/of my departure,” he goes on, but the farewell he makes is not to his friends or his children. Rather, he bids goodbye to the parts of himself that served as the instruments of his rule and of his pleasure. In the end, because he lived his life solely for himself, they are all he has, and realizing that plunges him into a desolating loneliness:
Eyes, the time has come:
bid this head farewell. Palms, forearms,
the fingers of these hands, you must take leave
of each other. Do not linger over me,
my friends. My death fulfills my enemies’
desire. Till now I’ve lived in ignorance.
I have accomplished nothing. Be on your guard.
He tells his friends not to waste their time mourning him, and he leaves them with a warning not to make the same mistake that he did. For me, this is one of the saddest things I can imagine, that I could reach the end of my life and feel I had lived in ignorance, that I had accomplished nothing, that the only thing I had to pass on to those coming after me were the empty shell of a title and money, neither of which would really have much to do with me once I was gone. So, yes, I wish I had enough money to pay off my fmaily’s debt today, every single penny of it, but what I really want is the freedom I imagine that paying off the debt would grant me; but if a genie were to appear in my room right now, it isn’t even that freedom for which I would ask. Rather, I’d ask for what I would use that freedom to create: the continued opportunity–as a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, a friend, as someone who loves other people–to do meaningful work.
I realize I don’t need a genie to create those opportunities; I know that, even with my debt, I have the freedom to do that now; but it’s good to be reminded–it’s good for me to remind myself–that perhaps the worst constraint debt places on my life is the one that limits my imagination, that deceives me into thinking that I am defined by the money I owe.