My body shrunk away from the words as if I’d been called a bad name.
At the time, I was unemployed and living on savings and rental income from my home while exploring becoming a writer and painter. My friend who said I was rich, on the other hand, was struggling with money. Knowing this, I went straight to thinking that she thought I should be helping her with the cost of the road trip we were on. If I was rich, I must be able to afford it, right? But I wanted to get by without a job for as long as possible and, if I was rich, my not wanting to share felt selfish. So I wanted her to admit I wasn’t rich, i.e., greedy.
“I’m not rich. I’m on a budget. Rich people aren’t on budgets. Rich people can spend money any way they like.”
She wouldn’t retract it, however, because her point wasn’t to get me to pay for her, but to stress that I didn’t understand her struggle. She was right. I wasn’t hearing her though, because I was too busy being defensive.
It isn’t that I have always had money. I had to work my way through college and occasionally borrow money from friends to pay my rent. Interning after college, I had to waitress at night to pay my bills. And I have had multiple stints of being unemployed and worrying whether I would find a job, once worrying I’d lose my house. But even during those times, I still felt like I had more than others. Underneath whatever stress and worry I felt, I knew I would figure it out and I did.
Ending Up Broke, Homeless, and Alone
Nonetheless I have a deep fear that I will end up broke, homeless, and alone and it sometimes drives the part of me that feels selfish. It is 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 is 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. Being single with no kids contributes to this sense, but being in a relationship with kids is no guarantee. If I was rich, wouldn’t I stop having these worries?
My fear isn’t based on experience since, even when times have been tough, I always pulled through whether because I found a job I needed or because a friend helped me out. Even on a tight budget, I still donate a percentage of my small income to charity, I still take friends to dinner occasionally or buy them gifts, and I’m still living a comfortable life. Nonetheless, the fear hides in my bones and silently steers many of my actions around money, especially if I see the spending as frivolous, which is not always explicable.
I’m Too Uptight Around Money
Battling with my fear, however, is the embarrassment of voices telling me that I am too uptight about money. If I said I couldn’t afford something, certain friends would say, yes you can. And 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 uncomfortable saying it.
I’m a Bad Person if I Have Too Much Money
Conversely, I have a fear that if I have too much that I am a bad person. 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. Watching the news or my facebook feed, it is impossible for me not to believe that the system is rigged and I am a beneficiary of that system while others are suffering.
The Recognition of Privilege: I Don’t Deserve It
I have always worked hard, 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 had to pay 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, just like when I wasn’t listening to my friend who said I was rich. I was operating from a guilty belief that I didn’t deserve what I had, while seeing her difficulties as valid, so I tried to take responsibility for them. Ultimately, my belief and my actions in response didn’t serve any of us.
The Fears Playing Out in Real Life
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 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. 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. Because 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.
Gratitude for All I Have
I love my house that I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into and 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 am 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.
Shame Around Abundance
As grateful as I am for the amazing life I have, I spend much more time feeling ashamed of it. So ashamed that at my lowest point a couple years ago, I briefly 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 despite my solar panels and biking everywhere, planting trees and a garden, my carbon footprint is far from zero. That it is difficult to buy clothes that I can be certain weren’t made by someone making $1/day. That when I buy dog food, I can’t be certain that the animals weren’t mistreated, or, if it contains fish, that they weren’t caught by slave labor. I could go on and on.
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.
Wishing I Could Fix the World
Yet 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 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 100%, the problems will still exist.
Learning to Enjoy the Gifts I’ve Been Given
When other friends tell me similar struggles, I’ve told them an analogy – 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 have moderate success following this advice myself.
The Serenity Prayer: Accepting What I Cannot Change
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 my abundance. I daily say the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference
Sometimes I manage to find that place of peace, but then someone tells me I’m rich or I’m confronted with my privilege in some other way 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.
Learning to Accept the Struggle And Love Myself Within It
Which brings me back to my friend calling me rich. My reaction to her words is a microcosm of how I feel with the world. I think that if I give her money or buy her things that I can solve her problems – even though that is not what she wants from me. But I can’t resolve her struggles just as she can’t resolve mine. I can be a loving, generous friend with her in many ways. It may include money, but more often it is supporting her emotionally and with love, as she does with me over and over again. Our ability to be there for each other in those ways is what has sustained our friendship for over twenty years. But I will probably continue to feel tension until I can accept my choices around money without considering myself selfish.
It’s the same on a macro level. There are many ways for me to share my gifts. 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, I need to go back to the lesson I learned in Loving the Kid, Not the Temper Tantrum. I am loved 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.
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. So I am trying to see myself the same way. Feeling deserving of having money and accepting my decisions around spending it may be my greatest struggle. Perhaps accepting the struggle is what self-compassion looks like – knowing that I may never get it right, but loving myself anyway.