AROUND 2,800 YEARS ago, Homer’s Odysseus decided that the whole Trojan war enterprise, in which all of Greece would go to war and destroy an entire city because a woman ran off with a guy she liked, was crazy, so he tried to get out of going by pretending to be crazy himself. The Greek allies were suspicious that their cleverest leader was really crazy, so they sent an emissary to find out.
When the emissary arrived at Odysseus’s small city state, he found Odysseus incoherent. Odysseus was plowing his fields, but sowing salt into the ground rather than seeds. Nevertheless, the emissary thought Odysseus might not be crazy. To test Odysseus’s sanity, the emissary placed Odysseus’s newborn infant in front of the plow. Odysseus, not being crazy, stopped plowing, thus revealing himself to be sane—and hence capable of taking part in a war he thought was crazy.
In many ways, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey mark the beginning of Western literature and, indeed, there are several important themes in Homer’s work—stuff like duty to yourself and others, society’s duty to the individual, man’s relationship to gods and fate, the need to honor the dead, and what constitutes proper action for an individual and for society.
But that’s not the reason I bring up Odysseus. Instead, I’m mostly interested in the fact that he was using a wheelless stick plow. The moldboard plow, allowing more fertile heavy soils to be completely turned over under the plow, would not be invented for another 2,500 years. The stick plow was invented more than 6,000 years ago, so Odysseus is closer in time to me than he was to the invention of that first plow.
As I’ve been planting my vegetable garden, scratching furrows into the ground with a Warren hoe—which functionally is a stick plow even more primitive than Odysseus’s plow—I’ve been thinking about Odysseus, and the relationship between my own plowing and my inability to avoid getting involved in enterprises that lack common sense.
Gardening lacks common sense, at least for me. For people who enjoy the act of gardening, it’s perfectly sensible. But my enjoyment of gardening is irrationally bound up with the idea that I have to grow vegetables, so the garden costs less out of pocket than buying the same food at the store would cost. In a world with both relentlessly efficient large-scale agriculture and local organic commercial gardeners who are far better at growing things than I am, this is difficult to justify.
That a garden needs to be financially practical is not just an idea for me. Apparently, I’m emotionally cathected to this on a level that’s far from practical.
What’s the real reason I feel this way? I think it’s because, when I was growing up, I spent my summers with my grandparents, who were born around 1900. They had a garden. All my grandmother’s sisters had gardens. They all lived nearby. They harvested together and canned the food together.
They had gardens because gardens were practical and thrifty. Gardens were thrifty during the Second World War, and before that they were thrifty during the Great Depression, and before that they were a necessity because various branches of the family were farmers in isolated areas of the West, while others were Kentucky coal miners. For all of them, both cash and refrigeration were in short supply.
The conditions that made gardens practical and thrifty have faded. Nevertheless, each spring in my backyard, I drag the plow of the past habits of long-dead loved ones back and forth.
It’s not just me. People in general drag the past around with them like a phantom plow. They’re so used to pulling that plow that, as they make their way through every day, they scarcely notice how the past leaves a furrow in the present.
Gardening, however crazy I make it, is at least harmless. Not all the financial habits we carry from the past are so benign.
I think most people’s spending habits are unconsciously tied to what they saw their parents, or other adults significant to them, do and how they felt about it. You can avoid talking to your kids about how to spend, save and invest. But you can’t hide from your kids how you actually act around money nearly so well—and certainly not as well as you hide how you act from yourself. Children may not know the dollar amount of their parents’ spending, but they’ll notice every irrational behavior their parents have about money.
And for years, they’ll integrate that behavior or struggle to differentiate themselves from it. Even in cases where people grow up and consciously decide not to behave like their parents, they’re still reacting to the past.
The result can be unfortunate spending or unfortunate frugality. The result might be excessive investment fear or irrational enthusiasm. Or the consequence can simply be an unfortunate feeling of anxiety about money. Such acts and feelings can be difficult to avoid or even recognize when they’re bound up with the emotional aspects of the past.
Few people are cathected to light bulbs or paper clips, which typically makes decisions about purchasing such things relatively rational and straightforward. But other purchases, such as houses, clothes, cars and family vacations, can sometimes take on an emotional import beyond their practical utility. When people habitually overspend or underspend on things, or feel bad about how they use money, there’s almost always an unexamined emotional component beneath the surface.
Paradoxically, thinking dispassionately about the cost of what you want isn’t an entirely satisfactory way out of the dilemma, because you’re a human being. What you want should be bound in some cases to your emotions, because—if nothing is—you’re probably a psychopath.
I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate the emotional element of our spending, saving and investing decisions. I do think that, when you find yourself anxious or troubled by a financial habit, or stridently defensive about a financial decision, it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look at why you have the habit, how it developed and whether it carries an emotional weight from the past.
Some needs of the past can’t be satisfied by acting in the present. You can’t fix everything in the past, but you can understand it. If you’re lucky.
Unless you’re a lost cause, like me. I’m off to nag my kid about helping me weed the garden. We’ll ultimately eat what we sow, and the past will be our future plowman’s lunch.
David Johnson retired in 2021 from editing hunting and fishing magazines. He spends his time reading, cooking, gardening, fishing, freelancing and hanging out with his family in Oregon. Check out David’s earlier articles.