My body shrunk away from the words as if I’d been called a bad name. I heard her saying I was selfish and greedy or a judgment that she thought I should be more easy going with money; whatever it was, I heard her saying I was bad. Is it because Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, than for a rich person to enter heaven? I don’t know, but I couldn’t even listen to why she thought I was rich. I became defensive and wanted her to take it back.
To me, being rich is when I stop worrying about how I spend money. And I worry about money all the time. My go to fear is that I will end up broke, homeless and alone. It’s the fear that pops up when I wonder if I will ever start to make money writing, when I think about a recession coming or that I might use up my savings and be unable to find a job. It’s the fear that I will get old and be unable to take care of myself and I will have no one to help me nor the money to hire someone.
My fear is part and parcel of the idea that I am responsible for taking care of myself because, in the end, no one else will. As if not allowing myself to relax and fully enjoy all I have or not being as generous as I’d like will stave off impending disaster. Disaster that doesn’t feel so irrational when I watch the news or look at my Facebook feed and I see all the horrible tragedies happening in the world. If I was rich, wouldn’t I stop having these worries?
Battling with my fear, however, is the embarrassment of past voices telling me that I’m too uptight about money. If I said I couldn’t afford something, certain friends would say, yes you can. And sometimes they were right. I could afford it, I just didn’t want to spend money on it, usually because I would rather save the money for something more important to me. Yet I felt judged around it. And if my friend is right, and I’m rich, then I must also be uptight. I don’t want to be uptight. Yet it is my very thriftiness that is why I’m now able to pursue this writing dream while I live on savings for a few years. So is being uptight really so bad?
Regardless, if I stop to look at all that I have in my life, I can’t help but recognize that my friend is right in a certain way. I may not be mega millionaire rich, but I’m definitely financially better off than the majority of the world. Yes, I live on a tight budget, significantly restricted from what I could do when I had a job in a law firm, but I still have a comfortable life. And then there’s the abundance of love and generosity I have from friends and family.
And while the word “rich” carries a lot of connotations that I don’t want to apply to me, for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt privileged. Even when I struggled financially: working part time in college and occasionally borrowing money from friends to pay my rent, interning after college and waitressing at night to pay my bills, feeling demoralized when unemployed and not finding a job, worrying I’d lose my house, I still felt like I had more than others. Accompanying that sense of privilege was guilt that I wasn’t generous enough, that I was too uptight about money, that I was undeserving of all I had.
I have always worked hard, and I’m told I should give myself credit for that, but I’m highly conscious that everything I have is a gift. My parents loved me and raised me in a place with little crime and a country with no war on its land. I had an excellent public-school education and I went to university. Not everything was handed to me on a silver platter, though. I started babysitting at age ten and had my first job with a paycheck at 13, I saved and studied hard to get good grades and scholarships, I worked throughout university, and I am still paying back student loans. Yet the values instilled in me and what I learned from those experiences, that education, hard work, spending responsibly, and saving gave me what I needed to achieve most of my goals. I did nothing to deserve these gifts of attitude or the accident of birth. In not deserving, however, I feel guilt that I received so much when so many start out with so much less.
This sense of privilege and of having more has impacted how I move in the world. In markets in countries throughout Africa, I was terrible at haggling because I would think, I’m privileged and you’re not, so I should pay whatever price you ask. Except sometimes I couldn’t afford the price because I was a volunteer with a very small stipend, so rather than haggle, I left the item behind.
I had a neighbor that I believed had less than me and I “lent” her money that she never paid back and I regularly had trouble standing up to her when she made false accusations against me and even when I had reason to believe she’d stolen from me. I believed I should let it go and be understanding of her situation. Except I wasn’t being understanding, I was operating from a guilty belief that I didn’t deserve what I had, while seeing her difficulties as more worthy, so I tried to take responsibility for them. Ultimately, my belief and my actions in response didn’t serve any of us.
A few weeks ago, I was in a bar with a group of friends having a drink. When the bill came, everyone but me paid with a credit card. I only had a $20 bill, so I put it down expecting to get 10 back. Except that when the bartender returned, he brought only $1. I went to talk to him when everyone else left. He explained that he had charged each card the exact cost of their drink taking all of the tax and tip that had been added into the bill out of my cash.
He insisted, “I literally charged what everyone wrote down.”
I responded, “No. You didn’t ‘literally.’ Because next to my cash was the exact amount of my drink but you took the entire balance of tax and tip out of it, unlike how you treated the credit cards.”
Whether he truly thought we meant to have all the tax and tip paid out of the cash or whether he just didn’t want to spend the time doing the calculation for each card, it didn’t really matter. What mattered to me was that I was out $10 and I wasn’t going to get it from the people who had left. He was the one who’d made the mistake; I shouldn’t have to pay for it.
Notably, I didn’t yell and I went through the thought process of what I was trying to achieve with this argument. After all my anger management work that I wrote about in We Are All Doing Our Best, Now What, I was proud of myself.
As I stayed calm, however, he became riled up, “you’re accusing me of lying and cheating.” I wondered if this was a set up so I could see how I looked to the woman at the pool in We Are All Doing Our Best. He threw a $20 bill at me and said it wasn’t worth losing his job over.
“You’re not a liar or a cheat and I don’t want you to lose your job. I also don’t want $20, just the 10.”
He walked to the end of the bar to finish his closing up and wouldn’t talk further.
I wanted to value that I was on a budget and didn’t want to lose $10. I wanted to value that he made a mistake, not me. And yet, I hated that I cared about it. As a bartender, he lives on his tips and I didn’t want him to not get a tip. I considered walking off with the $20 to teach him a lesson to not tempt fate. In the end though, I couldn’t do it and I left with nothing. I decided that his need for the money was greater than mine.
A month later and I’m still thinking about it. Not because I miss the $10 but because my interior voices alternate between criticizing myself for being too uptight about $10 and criticizing myself for thinking that his needs mattered more than mine, especially when it was his mistake. Who’s to say which of us needed that $10 more. I have no idea what his financial situation is. Does it matter?
I’m tired of those battling critical voices. I try telling myself “Ha Ha Jen, there you go again,” and letting go, as I wrote about in Letting Go. Then Letting Go Again. And Again. It’s not working though because I want to be different than who I am, even though I’m not sure I need to be.
It isn’t just about the $10 with the bartender, but it’s being willing to splurge on the little things. I always wanted my ex to buy me flowers more, but he was on a similarly tight budget to me. I appreciated about him that he was responsible with money because I’ve seen it in many friends’ relationships where they struggle with a partner that is not. But while I wanted him to loosen up on the little things, I had trouble loosening myself up.
I’m not sure where the line is. If I buy flowers for myself once a week? Once a month? Will that mean I am less uptight with money? Will my indulging that way on myself allow me to feel less uptight and generous with friends and others when it comes to money? Do I need it to? Can I stop evaluating my abundance and generosity solely on financial grounds? Can I see what I give in other less tangible ways as just as valuable and part of the complete picture?
This dilemma that I experience around my abundance, isn’t just about money, but time as well. I have a few friends that seem inexhaustible in their giving of time to causes they believe in and to their loved ones. While I’ve volunteered and tried to write letters or do what else I can, I get frustrated because I tend to think I should be doing more, but doing more would mean less time with my friends and family. Less alone time for me. And that time is precious to me.
And here’s the crux of my discomfort with my privilege. I hate all the inequality and injustice in the world. I hate that I can’t fix it with a wave of my magic wand or that I can give and give and give and, while in the end I will have helped some people, most of the injustice and inequality will continue. I hate that I don’t really know how to wield this privilege that I have for good. I hate that there are no truly right answers. And, if I’m completely honest, I have this idea that to truly be worthy, I must be suffering. If I’m rich, I can’t be suffering.
Competing with my discomfort around my inability to fix the world is the guilt I feel for wanting my comforts. I love my house that I gutted and renovated and poured my blood, sweat, and tears into. I love that I get to use it not only for my enjoyment, but to host friends and family and friends of friends that come to visit for short or long periods, that I get to host house concerts and fundraisers. I give thanks for my house every single day.
I bought my first car four years ago when I got tired of the hassles of trying to garden and do house projects using rental cars or car shares to pick up materials. I don’t drive frequently, but when I do, I’m always grateful for the convenience of it. I love to eat good food and I give thanks I can pay for it when I’m in the grocery store. I love having someone clean my house and am deliriously happy every month when she comes.
Not all of my delights cost much money, however. I love camping over fancy hotels. I love living in a place with free museums because I’d have trouble indulging my love of art without it. I love that I can go hiking in Rock Creek Park and be ensconced in the woods ten minutes from my house. How lucky I am to have access to all of this.
Yet, I want someone to tell me the exact balance between my being able to enjoy all of my comforts with giving so that I can still be a good person, because I tend to think that if I’m giving less than 100% of my time and money that I’m not good enough. And yet I know that even if I give everything, the problems will still exist.
Regardless of knowing the reality of not being able to fix all the problems, and as grateful as I am for the amazing life I have, I spend a lot of time feeling ashamed of it. If I can’t come by suffering and worthiness through a real tragedy, then I’m going to find another way. A couple years ago, my shame reached such depths that I considered walking in front of a bus because I could only see how the world was harmed by my being in it. Any good that I might do was overshadowed by the fact that I can never give or do enough. It is difficult to buy clothes that I can be certain weren’t made by someone making $1/day. Despite my solar panels and biking everywhere, planting trees and a garden, my carbon footprint is far from zero. When I buy dog food, I can’t be certain that the animals whose meat was sacrificed weren’t mistreated, or, if it contains fish, that they weren’t caught by slave labor. Then there are the individuals I can’t seem to help: the homeless guy telling me that this time when he goes to Atlantic City, it’s going to be different, he learned his lesson – and it isn’t to stop gambling; a domestic violence pro bono client going back to her abusive boyfriend. I could go on and on. I have internalized that because I’m privileged, the problems are my fault, but no matter how much I try (which feels far from enough), I can’t figure out how to stop them, so how can I enjoy the abundance I’ve been blessed with?
When other friends tell me similar struggles, I’ve told them – imagine I gave you a car to enjoy. If you set it aside and felt miserable about it because you believed you didn’t deserve it, I’d want to take it away and give it to someone else who would enjoy it. So enjoy the car. I know my gifts are God’s grace and I’m pretty sure She wants me to enjoy them. I have only moderate success following my own advice however.
I want to be one of those people who can look at the horrors of the world and take action where I feel like I can, but then also enjoy the beauty in it, which is truly more prevalent, and feel grateful for all that I have. I daily say the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.Reinhold Niebuhr
I’m improving at sitting in that place of peace, but then a friend tells me I’m rich and I get stuck in the voices in my head that tell me I’m not deserving or that I’m not generous enough: with my money, my time, my love.
I am, of course, abundant, or “rich,” if one prefers. It isn’t about money, which ebbs and flows, but about all the wonderful blessings I have. I am lucky to have so much. But the problem isn’t really about the label. It’s that I internalize being rich, abundant, privileged, or whatever name you give it, as meaning that I should be able to fix the world and, until I can, I must make myself suffer. I can’t fix the world though. Just as, frankly, no one can fix my problems for me. There are, however, many ways for me to share my gifts that may shift the needle slightly, just as I am regularly blessed by people and events in my life that help to move me toward greater peace.
As someone who cares about the world, I suspect I will be in constant reevaluation of whether I am giving the way I want to in accordance with my values. I am growing in my ability to trust that I am not going to end up homeless, enjoying the comforts and blessings I’ve been given and accepting how I choose to give to the world both financially and in other ways.
When I struggle though, which is still frequent, I go back to the lesson I learned in Loving the Kid, Not the Temper Tantrum. God loves me even if I’m getting it wrong. And the lesson I learned in Settling in to the Discomfort of Saying No that a power greater than me is at work in the world and it isn’t all about me knowing the right answers. Instead, it’s about me following the voice inside to do my part. Whatever gifts I or anyone else have, and we all have gifts in some way, we just seem to value some more than others, I have by the grace of God and God wants me to enjoy them, not suffer because of them.
My persistent guilt, however, and most certainly the thought of walking in front of an oncoming truck, do nothing to make the world a better place. I wouldn’t want my niece or nephew to ever feel that way. I want them to enjoy and feel deserving of all the love and gifts they receive. They are my touchstone. So I am trying to see myself the same way. Feeling deserving of my abundance, especially where money is concerned, and accepting my decisions around spending may be my greatest struggle. Perhaps accepting the struggle is what self-compassion looks like – knowing that I will never get it right, but loving myself anyway, regardless of how someone else may label me.