Capitalism and Charon’s obol

Bradley Platz-Charon_and_the_Shades
Charon and the Shades by Bradley Platz, 2007

I haven’t been writing much (well, not for public consumption) because things continuing to fall apart is just not that interesting for you. I’ll get back to it when I can assemble it into a coherent narrative, with hindsight. I will say, for the benefit of any others going through the process, that it can take much longer than you expect, and when you think you see signs of a new beginning–well, you probably do, but don’t count those chickens yet.

It takes as long as it takes. Things die and decompose and depending on the local environmental conditions, decomposition can be slow. You can relax and trust that it’s a necessary process that makes way for new growth and greater authenticity, or you can get impatient and freak out and still not be able to do a damn thing about it; I strongly recommend the former, because I usually do the latter.

But I just want to throw this perhaps rather tacky question out there, to wit: Why do people providing spiritual services (including but not limited to death care) charge so damn much?

Just one example: I was considering a weekend course recently, which would be held in my state (nothing ever seems to be available in my state), but it was $750. When I was an adjunct teaching university courses, I might–if I was lucky–make $3000 for an entire semester. That’s 15 weeks, usually meeting two to three times per week for a single course, and independent of the number of students (and therefore the amount of student assignments and exams I had to grade). And this course was almost a thousand bucks for three days! And of course one had to provide one’s own meals and accommodation. I’ve seen herbalists and shamans charging hundreds of dollars for single consultations. Don’t even get me started on astrologers and magicians, who all want to be Dr. Dee at the Queen’s right hand (or left–buh dum CHING!). It’s not that the service they provide isn’t worth it, but it quite literally prices most of the population out.

So I have to ask, how are we deciding the value of these services, and more importantly what does that say about how we decide the value of those who need them?

I sympathize with the desire to make your living doing what you love and feel called to–God(s) know(s) I do. At the risk of repeating myself, though, let me repeat myself:

I have no problem with morticians or other death professionals (deathfessionals?) being recompensed for their time, effort, skill, and expertise, except in the larger sense that I am not a fan of capitalist exchange dynamics and the monetization of human relationships. Unfortunately, we live in a society where you gotta make money to live, and deathfessionals deserve to live too. I suspect–call me crazy here, but I suspect–that deathfessionals don’t get into that biz full of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But as I think about some of the efficient, green, time-honored ways to facilitate a body’s decomposition, or touching stories about honoring the dead and faring-them-well, I realize that I and countless other Americans can’t afford any of these things.

Ok, I’m poor, my impecunious situation might not be that representative…except, oh wait, yes it is. And poor people go through a lot of psychological, physical, and spiritual challenges they could sure use some help with. You think their ancestors don’t have issues? You think they don’t live in haunted houses? You think they don’t have soul loss? You bet your sweet bippy they do. Where do you think all those opioid overdoses and suicides come from? For people who are devout followers of a mainstream religion, I think they can still get some help for free, I don’t even know because I’m not on speaking terms with The Church. And if you want mainstream medical consultation, there are even free clinics for that.

But what about us weirdos? Why do we gouge each other?

I suspect that part of it is the idea that high prices are a kind of credibility, something that, as weirdos, we rarely get to enjoy. If your service is expensive, people will think it’s valuable. Plus you get wealthier, “more exclusive” clientele. Supply and demand doubtless plays a role: there are not a lot of providers of, e.g., soul retrieval, herbal health care, or exorcism (although it sure seems like there are a hell of a lot of tarot readers and Etsy witches out there). I’m not really sure what the relative frequency of alternative spiritualities is among the wealthy versus the poor; there was a time when it was a distinctly middle-class sort of thing to be SBNR or New Age or pagan, but nowadays I don’t know. Perhaps some spiritual service providers figure poor folk aren’t among their clientele anyway, but in that case I’d say we may be looking at a chicken-or-egg question.

But even if that’s the case, do we want things like soul retrieval, herbal health care, and exorcism to only be within the reach of white suburbanites in Portland and LA? (I can tell you this much: Nick Culpeper is spinning in his grave.)

When you look at groups who have/had been providing spiritual services for their communities for a long time–such as curander@s, shamans, sin eaters, even midwives and herbalists–they don’t make bank. Granted, in the wayback capitalism wasn’t a thing; granted, there were cultural contexts for these sorts of services that allowed their providers to (sometimes) enjoy a good deal of social prestige. But mostly these people did what other people did to make a living, i.e., they farmed, they hunted and gathered, they traded goods and services, etc. Their spiritual or medical work was usually above and beyond meeting their survival needs, and that’s part of why most people didn’t want to do it.

I get it, times have changed. I get that we can’t rely on our communities to feed diviners or support shamans in their twilight years. I get that if you work a full time job, between the huge amount of time and energy you devote to that (plus commuting and getting ready, etc.) and the soul crushing tedium of most modern work, you have damn little left to accomplish the basics like feeding your family, making love to your partner, or cleaning your house, forget about pro bono spirit work. I get that if you want to train people, you don’t get an apprentice who helps in your work, you teach courses, and those take a lot of prep work (far more than non-teachers imagine). I get that rich people have problems too. I get that we all want out of the rat race. I get that not everyone is guilty of the spiritual price gouge (one reason I think this project is so important even though I’m not a magician). I get that we are all caught in a bind.

Poverty isn’t a virtue, but neither is wealth. Artists shouldn’t have to starve, but that doesn’t mean we’re all entitled to be rich. I am not advocating that we sacrifice all our own dreams and aspirations for the sake of others (as too many women have had to do, laboring in obscurity and anonymity while history recorded the men as heroes). I’m not saying it’s evil to make money. I am, however, urging us all to ask some uncomfortable questions about how we define success, how much professional satisfaction and social approbation we can live without, whether the services we provide are about satisfying our need for personal pleasure and fulfillment or about those who actually need our help.

Because we* can do so much better. When we put huge price tags on our services, we are making it very clear that we prize our own caviar dreams above the health of our communities. I long for a world where we can all spend all our time doing what we love and feeling fulfilled, but instead we live in a world where we have to make sacrifices and judgment calls. If we want a better world, how are we going to get there, by helping already wealthy people, or by helping those who are otherwise forgotten, ignored, invisible? Are we brave enough to go where the brokenest, ugliest, most disgustingly suppurating wounds are? Because those are the ones that need urgent care.

*By “we” I mean weirdos; I don’t presently provide services except occasionally to friends, and I don’t charge for that. That’s not to say that I never have, or never will. In the meantime I try to answer the needs of the community that I can, but for now, with my current skill set, that is not much. Still, you start where you are and do what you can.

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One thought on “Capitalism and Charon’s obol

  1. Sending much love and solidarity.
    In a related example: when i went seeking 20 years ago, i found the right place for me, funded by voluntary donations and work exchange. In more recent years, i heard of a place offering teaching in a similar geographical and esoteric place. When i went to find out their curriculum, i could find no specifics, but there was a high price tag. They also expected physical labour after a full day’s study and paying for a non specific course. In my day, money and labour were either/or, not both-and. I have not recommended that course to anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

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