Money Memories & Fears

[I refer to this episode and its meaning in a fresh post coming shortly. Excerpted from: Reflections from Afar: Unexpected Blessings for Those Who ‘Have’ from Those Who Don’t, 2010]

So there I was, pinned down by a schoolmate, his fist ready to pound my face. I was totally clueless as to why he wanted to fight.

It happened 40 years ago. I don’t think of it often, that embarrassing, puzzling memory from my brackish years in junior high. But when Suze Orman challenged readers in The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom to think of their most vivid childhood memory concerning money, I was stunned when that fight episode popped into my mind. And when she told readers to articulate their greatest fear concerning money and then to find the link between the early memory and the greatest fear, it finally made sense, all these decades later.

I was a young teen living on Bonforte Boulevard on a fashionable edge of Pueblo, Colorado. For the first time, our family had our own backyard pool. I attended an economically diverse school that included a number of Hispanic kids who lived in a poor immigrant area everyone simply called “Dogpatch” (if you can believe that hideous name). A Mexican slum on the edge of our little city of 100,000 souls.

In four years of living in Pueblo, I never went into Dogpatch. Nobody went there if they didn’t need to. I hope to God it doesn’t exist anymore.

But some of the kids from Dogpatch would become my sudden friends every summer during swimming season, and that was great. I don’t think I ever really gave that too much thought; I harbored no cynical resentment. Anyway, they would take a shortcut through the prairie and hop onto our cinderblock wall to see what was up; and we’d all jump in the pool. Play is the great equalizer, at least on some level.

The Dogpatch kids would walk past my house to get to school too, though junior high is the great divider and we generally ran in different circles during the school year.

I was stunned when one of those hot-weather friends, David, wanted to fight me while walking home from school one day. I didn’t want to fight him, but soon he was on top of me, his knees pinning my arms, his right fist quivering above my face. Pretending that the tear running into my ear was from “something in my eye,” I asked him why he wanted to fight me. All he could say was that he didn’t like my uppity attitude.

I realize now that David probably lived with low-level frustration at the disparity between his life and mine away from school, and that somehow I’d done something that seemed haughty or privileged to him and had painfully brought home this inequality. But what eighth-grade boy could express that in a moment of frustration and emotion? It’d be much simpler to just punch it out.

I had no idea that his gratitude for my summertime “charity” could turn into anger at the underlying injustice of a disparity that neither of us had created, but in which we both played our roles.

But David never threw the punch. Mercy triumphed over retributive justice. We both went back to cordially playing our roles for the remaining months my family lived in Pueblo.

I never forgot the mystifying incident when I’d felt so vulnerable and clueless. As I’ve gotten older, I occasionally think of the episode and try to figure out another little piece of the puzzle.

It seemed odd to have that pop into my mind as a “money memory.” But Suze’s next challenge opened my eyes: Define your biggest fear regarding money (which at first I had trouble coming up with), and look for the almost-certain link between the early memory and the fear.

In that moment, I could suddenly name the fear. I saw the baggage.

My greatest money fear is simply this: Living a life of ease in a sea of suffering. Swimming while others are drowning. Not caring.

Of course, the easy answer is to refuse awareness, to create separate schools, separate neighborhoods, separate but unequal everything. This is, in fact, in large measure what we’ve done. And it’s what I struggle with most about the lovely, homogeneously comfortable area where I now live.

You see, despite its risks, I worry that proximity may be my only hope for salvation from this. Just like the rich man in Jesus’ story, who at least had an invalid beggar camped out at his gate. The rich man blew it in Jesus’ simple parable (Luke 16:19-31). He ended up in hell, when caring for the poor beggar would seemingly have been his ticket to paradise.

But I don’t even have the poor at my gates anymore to remind me of their reality. I’ve moved away, apart from those in need, and I’ve done so at my peril. Can I really understand and obey Jesus when I’m moving further from the things he would move closer to?

Coming Back From Afar, Bearing Gifts

A stranger gave me a wonderful gift the other day. We were both attending a training seminar on how to help people tap into their philanthropic passions. The trainer predicted, “Every time a class does this next exercise, several attendees have an epiphany.”

It was a two-person role-play, except that as the responder, I was to simply be myself.  My role-play partner, whom I’d just met, dutifully asked me, “What would you like to do with your money that would be meaningful to you?” No surprise: I talked about helping the global poor, especially children.

“Tell me more.”

“Well, I’ve always had an interest in poverty, I suppose. I did the ‘trick or treat for Unicef’ thing for many years as a child. And I volunteered at an inner-city hospital for two summers in high school in Kansas City.” I rattled off a few additional examples.

She honed in and asked how I ever decided to volunteer at an inner-city hospital—me, a white kid from the suburbs. And I couldn’t remember. I really had no clue. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it.

Then I remembered my junior high encounter with David, the boy from Dogpatch, which had happened the summer before we moved to Kansas City. I began volunteering the very next summer. 

Suddenly, as I explained all this to a near-total stranger, the pieces came together for me. Less than a year after I was jumped by this angry kid, my life’s trajectory was changing. I had been confronted by the shocking realization of the existence of the other, and suddenly realized that I didn’t really have the foggiest notion of how the other lived. Somehow that moved me to do something to cross the divide that separated us.

I started to exclaim, “Why, this explains … ” My role-play partner interrupted me, “… your whole life!

I shared a holy moment of personal discovery with a stranger, and we both sensed that I’d been given a powerful gift of understanding. Coming to the realization that there were others, people who didn’t live as I lived and didn’t think as I thought, made me realize how much I needed to listen, and to learn. Amazingly, the trauma that led to this discovery hadn’t scared me away; it became an invitation, a door that gradually opened onto a new pathway for my life. The reality that there were fellow human beings “afar off” (though I shared the same ZIP code with some of them) became an invitation to draw near.

[excerpted from: Reflections from Afar: Unexpected Blessings for Those Who ‘Have’ from Those Who Don’t]

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