Sunday, August 10, 2014

An Unexciting Life with Money

This is one in a series of posts of meditations on the book An Unexciting Life by Michael Casey, a Trappist monk. For others in the series, click on "an unexciting life" in the list of topics on the right-hand side of this page.

The passage I want to comment on today is from the chapter, "John Cassian's Road Map". John Cassian was a 4th century monk (for a detailed description of his life, click here). The passage is a quote from his writings:

"Even one who has no money can be a victim to the disease of avarice so that his impoverishment yields no benefit to him." Michael Casey expands on that a bit by noting that external renunciation, which is expected of monks, will not bring freedom unless a person also purifies his interior affections.

Being a former financial planner and counselor, I was immediately drawn to this comment of Cassian's. In my years of helping people with issues relating to money (and most life issues do have a money component in there somewhere), the love of money (avarice) usually appeared cloaked in the guise of an inordinate concern about the financial factors of a given decision, even if the decision should not have been primarily about money.

As a simple example, many people subconsciously equate the optimal college education for their children with the university's tuition cost: the higher the tuition, the better the education provided, right? Wrong! Or how about the widely held belief that in order to have a happy retirement you have to have enough money to fund your existing lifestyle?

Because of such beliefs people often make poor financial decisions, like the client I had who, because he had not been able to put aside money for retirement, got into trading commodities futures (not for amateurs!) and ended up losing his house and ultimately his family. He succumbed to avarice - he wanted (even if his intentions seemed good) to amass more money than he could expect to do under normal circumstances, and rather than allowing his "impoverishment to benefit him", he fought against it and lost.

In general, my experience has been that people in the US are terrified of not having enough money. But as I continually said to clients, "It's not about the money!" Having a full, satisfying and meaninful life does NOT depend on money, as many studies attest. Poor people tend to be more generous than wealthier people, have stronger familial relationships, and describe themselves as being happy more often than rich people do.

That's something that always struck me about the stories people told of living through the Depression: the focus was on relationships, on community, and it produced many wonderful memories, even in the midst of great privation. Money, or the stuff that money can buy, is not the stuff of good memories.

Money, or what we tend to buy with it, is not what makes good memories. Think about the gifts you received for Christmas when you were a child - was it the most expensive gifts that bring back warm memories, or the ones that had special meaning for you?

Money enables you to "go it alone", and if you don't have much, you need the support of a strong family and community. That is very evident here in small-town Mexico, and it's one reason I love living here: people are more important than money, on a daily, practical, real-time basis.

This is a photo of a good friend of ours, his wife and one of his nine grandchildren, some of whom live with him (along with their parents) because the parents don't have jobs and don't have enough money to have separate homes (it's hard to find a job in our town). Tolin is the sole support for all of them and has multiple jobs to bring in enough money. On top of that, he is the leader of the worship team for our church and devotes a significant portion of his free time to that. And he's always upbeat, interested in things, learning something new. This is a man whose impoverishment has yielded many benefits in his life.

I have seen many happy outcomes when clients have let go of the importance of money in a situation and let their hearts and common sense guide them instead. When a person stops believing that having "enough" money is the only way to achieve something she greatly desires, her creative juices are freed up to find other non-monetary means of reaching the goal. That's enlivening!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An Unexciting Life: Friendship

Today's post is the latest in a series of meditations on the book An Unexciting Life by Michael Casey. For prior posts in the series, click on "an unexciting life" in the themes section on the right side of this page.

In the chapter "The Value of Stability" there is a section on friendship that this quote is from:
"Humility, service and amiability lay the foundations on which good relationships build. Good relationships prepare the soil from which friendship flowers...

To love another exposes one's own care for a brother means bearing his burdens: his limitations, his hurts, his mistakes, and ultimately, if the relationship becomes truly redemptive, the crushing weight of his sins."

What struck me in reading this passage is that there is a distinction between having a good relationship (which one should strive to have with every person) and friendship. There is a distinction between loving a person (we are called to love everyone, even our enemies) and having a friend. True friendship (deeper than the pleasant acquaintances we tend to think of as our "friends") is precious because it is relatively uncommon. But if we cultivate good relationships with all, we are more likely to find that some turn into deep friendships.

I am blessed to see both my sons and their wives having thriving friendships with numerous people, people of different backgrounds and generations. This is a testament to the effort that they all make to invest in relationships, to be humble, amiable, and serve others. Of course, this is a perfect description of my husband as well (my kids got it from him).

It is tragic to see families in which the parents are don't place much value in having good relationships with those around them. When their children grow up without a sense of the importance of relationships, they end up making life choices that leave little room for relationships to grow, and their lives become more and more distant from a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Because mankind was created to need relationships, people are not, in a sense, complete as humans if that essential element has not been well-developed in their lives.

I am thankful that in Mexican culture, as in many other parts of the world, relationships are valued more highly than they are in the US. It is quite rare for a person to move so far from his or her family that they can't get together often. It is common for neighbors and even non-neighbors to offer help where they see a need. Amiability is one of the most noticeable characteristics of Mexican people, who are invariably friendly to strangers. And the humility that shines through so often is quite marvelous to us gringos who have difficulty in letting go of our unintented arrogance.

"If you want a friend, be a friend"