Saturday, January 17, 2009

How religion (for me) is like Where's George

Although I think this story makes a nice parable for my experience with religion, it has the additional benefit of being entirely true.

Where's George logoAbout two years ago, I was rooming with a guy for a Scrabble tournament in Phoenix, Arizona. One night in the hotel room, I noticed him flipping through dollar bills and typing on his laptop. I asked him what he was doing, and he explained that he was entering his bills' serial numbers into Where's George, a web site that lets you track where your dollar bills end up throughout the nation or the world.

At first I was a little resistant to the idea. Part of my resistance was due to the fact that it seemed a little weird. But most of my resistance was due to the fact that I know myself pretty well, and I knew that I might get a little obsessed with Where's George if I started doing it myself. I am a completionist and a perfectionist by nature, and there is no limit to the amount of energy I can pour into any random inane task, if I put my mind to it. "Where's George is awesome," said my friend. "Well, okay, maybe I'll give it a try," said I.

excited girlAnd it was pretty awesome. Within a few days of entering some dollar bills on the web site, I had two hits (people who had found my bills) in a suburb of Pittsburgh! All the way across the country, and I had no idea how the bills got there! Where would my bills show up next? This was exciting stuff. Every time a bill showed up in a new state, it was thrilling.

I got a free Where's George stamp from a printing supplies web site, and I started stamping all my bills whenever I made a withdrawal from the bank. I started stamping not just dollar bills, but also fives, tens, and twenties. Whenever I went out to lunch with others who had unmarked cash, I would ask if they wanted to trade bills, so that I could stamp more money and enter it into Where's George. I chided my wife whenever she got change from the grocery store and re-spent it without letting me stamp it first. The world seemed filled with cash, just begging to be stamped and tracked. Sometimes I would daydream about tracking every dollar bill in the world.

cashierI started noticing that my stamped dollar bills were a real conversation starter. Nearly every time I spent any cash, the cashier would look at the bills intently for several seconds, trying to figure out what the weird blue markings were for. Sometimes they would ask me why I had stamped the bills, and I would smile and give a one-sentence spiel about Where's George and how fun it was. They never seemed convinced. Most of the time they shrugged it off. Sometimes they rolled their eyes. A couple times, they joked that I might go to jail for defacing currency.

I also started noticing that some people didn't appreciate my stamped cash at all. A few times, the marked bills caused an actual confrontation. Most of the problems occurred when my bills had a hard time being accepted by automated machines that were designed to accept cash. More than a few times, a grocery store employee had to step in and accept my cash manually in the Self Checkout lane. This did not make them happy. My wife said she even had someone say they wouldn't accept the stamped cash at all. Of course, they had to accept it—it is legal tender, after all—but it seemed strange to me that someone would react so negatively to my Where's George markings. I couldn't understand why it would be a big deal at all.

I happily continued stamping my cash and entering it into the web site after every paycheck, which took between one and two hours each time. I continued getting hits in various states, but about 80% of the hits came from within 30 miles of my house. The thrill of Where's George notification emails was starting to wear off. A few times, I wondered whether it was worth my time to continue doing it, but each time I convinced myself that it was really interesting to see where the bills were going, even those that weren't going anywhere. And who could say when a bill might show up in Alaska or Hawaii? I got a hit in Okinawa once, and it kept me going. More than anything, I felt compelled to continue simply because I couldn't bear the thought of a dollar bill slipping through my fingers without being tracked. What a lost opportunity that would be! And besides, the Where's George web site told me that my George Score (I kid you not) was in the top 5% of all Where's George users. Why throw it all away just because I was a little bored?

boredI persisted out of inertia for at least a year. Then a few weeks ago, as I was stamping bills for what would turn out to be the last time, I came to the realization that it truly wasn't satisfying anymore. I had started doing Where's George because it was fun and interesting, but it had devolved to the point where it had become a monotonous, and not very important, chore. I didn't even know why I was doing it anymore. The words of a friend rang in my ears, "I have better things to do with my time." Wasn't my time valuable? Couldn't I be doing more fun or important things instead of stamping money, which only seemed to annoy people anyway? What was the point?

So I quit. It felt weird the first time I got a dollar bill as change, and I knew I was going to spend it without entering it into the Where's George web site. I had no idea where that bill was going to go. Once I spent it, I would never again have any way of knowing where it would end up. And that was okay. For the first time in a long time, I felt free to let the dollar bills find their own paths, without me. I could not track them all, and I no longer wanted to try. I spent the bill, purposefully and intentionally, without a stamp. It felt great.

Since then, I've come across a couple bills that others have stamped with their Where's George stamps. It makes me a little nostalgic. In fact, yesterday I hit someone else's bill just to be nice, and gave some details about where I got it and where I was planning to spend it. It was satisfying to type an individual message about a bill, instead of entering a single generic message for a stack of several hundred bills. And it felt good to give a hit to the anonymous person who had stamped the bill. I wish them the best, and I hope my message was encouraging to them as a Where's George user.

goodbyeAs for me, though, I think I'm done with it. I'm happy to hit other people's bills when they come my way, but I won't be stamping any more myself. I might occasionally enter a few bills if I have reason to think they're especially likely to go somewhere cool. But if so, that will be by choice and not by compulsion, not even self-compulsion. Where's George has been fun, and I don't regret having spent so much time doing it. But as someone once said to me, I have better things to do with my time.


RedAragorn said...

I think I hit that point with Scrabble this past summer.

Maltese Cross said...

I become obsessed with things like that, too. Yahoo Answers is my off-and-on again obsession (currently off). My obsession was brief with Where's George back in 2006, but it's now back after coming across my account information in an old e-mail.

Thanks for sharing your stories regarding your adventures with your bills.

Saganist said...

Thanks, Maltese Cross! I still have fond memories of Where's George, and I always enter bills that other people have marked. Maybe one day I'll make time for it again, but I don't know if it will ever be the obsession it used to be.