“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
Many of us have so much silence and so many secrets in our families that we learn or adopt a strategy. We hold our breath. We contract in; present a façade to the world for as along as we possibly can; then, when we can’t hold our breath for one second more, withdraw.
For years, that strategy extended into—saturated, in fact—my relationship with money.
What seemed to make sense, especially as a single, self-employed creative writer, was spending as little money, and keeping my life as small and self-contained, as possible.
My new book, LOADED: Money and the Spirituality of Enough, is about how I found my way to a new, more life-enhancing approach to money. It’s about removing the metaphysical weight and childhood wounds from money in order to reveal it for what it is: a tool of love.
“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” [Ezekiel 18:2]. Family trauma has been found to affect the next seven generations, even with no additional trauma.
My parents were saintly, kind, decent, self-sacrificing, hard-working people. They’d also both come up during the Depression, and both came from families that had been deeply affected by alcoholism. My father supported eight children on a bricklayer’s salary. We never actually went hungry in my family, but a scarcity mentality prevailed: Five pork chops for seven people. The Christmas my “big” present was a blanket. I felt shame at the meager portions my mother served to friends when they came over for supper, and more shame that she didn’t know to be ashamed, didn’t see we were weird. I felt the shame of not knowing how to communicate; of having feelings that could not be given voice. I hurt. I long. I want to help. I love you.
As kids, we had our teeth drilled without Novocaine (Novocaine costs). Doctor’s visits were reserved for broken limbs, burst appendixes, or gashes sufficiently severe to require stitches. The message I picked up there was: You can’t afford to be helped, and when you can, the help hurts. When my father in the hospital dying, he couldn’t ask to up his pain meds for fear of “bothering” the nurses. “The poor soul, she’s got three kids at home,” he’d say, waving off our pleas that he ring the call bell and ask for more morphine.
As a result for a long time I lived in survival mode: every saved penny in my mind a hedge against bankruptcy; every expenditure a move toward living under the freeway underpass. Even today, I find free food a big draw—you never know when you’re going to run out or get stranded—and always feel a little thrill at wrapping up a stray cookie or pizza crust and putting it in my pocket “for later.” When I grind coffee at Trader Joe’s, I also empty the little grate beneath and top my own off.
There’s nothing wrong with being a good steward of the earth’s limited resources; a grateful, self-giving ascetic. But for me things began to veer very slightly into pathology. As a Catholic, confusing poverty as an ideology with holiness can become a temptation. “Going without” can become a kind of reverse pride; a feat of spiritual athleticism that is really about hoarding, not giving.
The underlying spiritual principle is trust. Do I believe that if I put serving God first, all else will be given to me?
Do I believe Christ when he says, So do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?' or 'What are we to wear?'…Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all [Matthew 6:31-32]?
LOADED has stories, laughs, and community-building tools—for we can’t overcome our fear on our own.
Here’s an excerpt:
The first real story I ever wrote, in seventh grade, was about a princess who falls “madly, deeply in love”—not with one of the rich and charming men her wealthy father, the king, has picked out for her, but with a “lowly” gardener. The king, angry at his daughter’s rebellion, orders the lover to be executed by drowning. The sentence is carried out. And the princess’s response is to row out alone in her little boat, lower herself over the edge, and kill herself.
I called it “And Then—Darkness.”
Before earning my first dime, I’d rejected wealth. Before my first kiss, I’d rejected the possibility of a romantic peer. Already, I’d decided not to accept largesse on the world’s terms. Already, I “knew” the world would snatch from me what I’d worked hard for. Because of my terrible (and, given my childhood, not entirely unfounded) fear of rejection and abandonment (crossed with grandiosity, self-righteousness, and a host of other unsavory traits), already I’d developed a life strategy that, unbeknownst to me, was based on a lie; on a form of dishonesty with myself.
The lie was about the extent and the nature of my desire.
Here’s how, in my working life, that panned out for me.
I left my job as an attorney to pursue my dream of creative writing in 1994. Still married, I’d squirreled away a couple of IRAs of about 4 grand apiece and a “nest egg” of twenty-eight grand that I put in a couple of mutual funds recommended by my (now late) father. For years, I would believe that money “enabled” me to write. I would believe that money was my hedge against working at another job that killed my soul.
But paradoxically, because I had the nest egg to fall back on, I wasn’t particularly moved to earn; and because I was loathe to spend any of my money, I might as well have had nothing.
Meanwhile, I steered social engagements toward coffee rather than lunch or dinner. I clothes-shopped at Goodwill. I had the same purse—a good purse, a $275 Donna Karan purse—but still, the same purse I’d bought fifteen years before while I was lawyering. I drove across country, twice, staying at Motel 6s, friend’s houses, and monasteries. I like walking around abandoned railroad tracks, freeway underpasses, warehouses, and vacant lots, I kept telling myself. I like the edges of things, the fringes, the high lonesome highway, the blue trail of sorrow. I’m feeding my work.
All that was true, in its way, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I was following my dream, to be sure, but over the years I also subconsciously adapted my dream to fit my fears around money. I eventually moved up from the Mazda (to a ‘96 Celica convertible). I eventually moved from ghetto K’town to a wing (in someone else’s huge beautiful house in Silver Lake, a hipster neighborhood in L.A.) that could have graced the cover of Dwell.
I’d developed a disciplined and authentic spiritual practice. I’d evolved to the point where, in my better moments, I wanted to be of service and to give of my gifts. I just couldn’t believe that I was also “allowed” to make money.
St. Paul observed that love of money—note: not money, but love of money—is the root of all evil [1 Timothy 6:10]. We tend to think “You cannot serve both God and mammon” means that we’ll love money and hate God but it’s just as bad to love God and hate money. If you hate something, you fear it. You don’t want to look at it, you purport not to care what it’s doing. And yet you’re obsessed with it. You won’t look it in the face, but you’ll watch it like a hawk.
My psycho-spiritual bottom didn’t consist in not being able to pay my creditors—I didn’t have any creditors. My bottom wasn’t realizing I lived in squalor; I lived in relative splendor. My bottom was realizing that something was fundamentally wrong, for a person who had graduated from law school with honors and passed three state bars; who could write, edit, speak and/or teach; who was hard-working, well-organized, conscientious, and energetic, in seeing $900 as a livable monthly wage.
My bottom came in acknowledging that the way I lived invited me to be “brave” in some ways that were foolhardy, and in other ways not to be brave at all. My primary goal had become not to give all of my gifts but rather to conserve all of my money. My “living on the edge” was really living in the wrong kind of comfort, and the spiritual life calls us always out of our comfort zones.
What did I really want? I wanted to have faith in God—not in my nest egg. What did I really want? I wanted to be able to earn freely and spend freely. What did I really want? I wanted to stop giving money the wrong kind of attention.
When we start paying the right kind of attention, our strategies around money can yield startling discoveries.
“Absolute attention is prayer,” observed the French intellectual/mystic/holy anorexic Simone Weil.
In a way, this book is a prayer.
Image credit: Eric LaMontagne via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.