In 2000, Daniel Suelo left the last $30 he had in a phone booth and walked away. Since then, he hasn’t earned or spent a single dollar. He pays no taxes, accepts no welfare and doesn’t barter. Everything he eats, wears and uses daily is either grown, scrounged or freely given.
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In The Man Who Quit Money, Mark Sundeen spent two years interviewing Suelo, his friends and family. The result is a fascinating look at a unique and remarkable individual living in the sands surrounding Moab, Utah.
There’s an interesting observation in the book that Suelo is doing essentially what our pioneer ancestors did, but he’s looked on as kind of a kook, while the pioneers are viewed as trailblazers.
Times today are no different than they ever were. When the Buddha left his family and went off to seek enlightenment that was considered crazy. Same with Jesus. We’re used to just thinking, “Oh, people back then just acted like Jesus did” because that was how they acted in those times. But I don’t think they did. I think people who completely reject the main foundations of society are always considered outsiders. We just tend to beatify them later on.
People often have a hard time disassociating the thoughts of someone using public facilities, like libraries, and mooching. Does that characterization bother him?
Yeah, he struggles with that a lot. I would say he has three levels of defense for those accusations. The first thing he says is, “are coyotes mooches? Are barnacles mooches?” He doesn’t accept the idea that...If you get something like a free education, you’re then obligated to give something back by becoming a productive member. When a bear eats berries off a bush, the bear doesn’t owe anything to the bush.
This idea of obligation of exchange is kind of an artificial human construct…[In truth,] he does give back. He volunteers, he gives to friends, he had an unpaid job on a fishing boat. But he doesn’t really bring that up unless you really hound him, due to a deeply held religious belief. Which I guess is the third way that he defends himself—he doesn’t think it’s anyone’s business if he’s giving back, because that’s between him and God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “don’t do your service and your prayers in public,” because that’s just a way of drawing attention to yourself.
How does his family react when they see him?
They’re surprisingly OK with it. I thought that, coming from a conservative Christian family, they wouldn’t be tolerant of this level of civil disobedience. But in fact, for Christian fundamentalists who’ve spent so much time reading about Jesus and John the Baptist, the idea of someone moving out into the desert and finding space to commune with the divine wasn’t that unusual.
I think more secular, career-oriented family who wanted their kids to get into a good school or whatever would probably be less tolerant. Because if you judge your success based on achievements, it’s got to be kind of humiliating if your son chooses to go live in cave. But if you judge them by their relationship with God, his parents had to admit that it was pretty impressive that their son was putting into practice so many of the beliefs he was taught as a child.
Since the philosophy of religion is so important to him, did you get the impression that he was doing this just as the fulfillment of a higher goal, or is he genuinely happy?
I don’t know if I’d say he’s happy, but he does seem to have a pretty genuine sense of self-acceptance that I don’t see in most people. A lot of Americans have a real love/hate relationship with their work. He doesn’t feel that, and I would call that a sign of contentment.
He also doesn’t have a fear of death, in the way that most people do. He doesn’t feel like he has to have a good job or send his kid to a good school or write a book to feel satisfied. He seems to have a real contentment over his mortality.
Chad Taylor is a freelance writer and music critic for alt-weekly Cityview in Des Moines, Iowa.