Staying present in the present, Making sense of some past, Embracing the future one crisis at a time
Sunday, January 24, 2010
What Financial Hardship Teaches About Humanity
Acquaintance with financial hardship is not something with which most Americans want to admit. There is most often an attitude of condescension: "Surely he or she must have brought this upon him or herself." "The culprit must be irresponsible, a quick draw with the credit card." "He always seemed a spender rather than a saver."
We disdain the idea and yet most of us juggle some type of financial hardship on a daily basis. I don't mean the type that plagues most of the world--a poverty of resources that we can't even begin to imagine. No, this type is the kind that comes with living and having too many options sometimes. And quite frankly, my pride has kept me from expressing for years what has plagued my very existence.
Five years ago, we began plans to build a house. This decision was immersed in sweat, worry, prayers and more sweat for several months. Several times I talked us out of the decision. And finally, when it seemed we were dead set on the idea, something happened that told us to move forward; something that we couldn't orchestrate ourselves. We knew enough to know that there were plenty of mistakes to be made. And we made most of them. We tried very hard to be careful but like every other family who has EVER built a home (ask around and see if I'm wrong), we easily went over by 20% and we were already pushing it.
What we ended with was a beautiful, unique home, infused with an aesthetic quality we felt many of today's homes are missing. We were able to do this because of Tom's background in carpentry. What we also ended up with was a top-heavy mortgage. However, times were good and the equity cushioned the reality of being strapped. We had made our bed and now we had to lie in it, literally, every night, living in this kind of albatross. It was embarrassing. I was ashamed. To make matters worse, we live in an affluent area. And while I do not aspire to live my life with affluence, I now found myself faced with this as well. I was not only a duck out of water, I was an ugly duckling, split between my love and hatred of the whole situation.
Deep beneath it all though was this clarity that for some reason we were meant to be here. That was not a mistake. Twice we have tried to sell the house. Twice, people have oohed and ahhed their way through and not one offer. Most recently, we put it up for sale (like half of America), convinced that we had to get out, following months of unemployment last year. Our goal: to avoid foreclosure. With shame I had to listen to many who complained of the place Americans found themselves in for we were in that place too and I despised myself for it. Why couldn't we have chosen differently here, or done this instead? It is a cruel but true reality: Hindsight is 20/20.
Oddly, when I told God one morning He could have the house; we'd start over, he very clearly replied (not audibly), "Yes, I know you'll give me the house. But will you keep it?" What sort of insanity was that?
Tired of carrying my shame around, I began to open up about our reality. Neighbors would dismiss the idea of our moving away, kidding about how they could sabotage a sale. We'd laugh and then I'd say, ah, but if you wish for us to not sell our house, you're wishing us into foreclosure. That's one way to shock your neighbors. It wasn't that I was trying to stun them into silence, I just had had enough of keeping up appearances, if you will. We are real people who took a gamble and it appeared to be turning out quite badly. We took this gamble for our children, for an investment, for many good, good reasons. But we'd tangled ourselves in a snare in the attempt.
However, something funny began to happen. Neighbors and others in town began to open up to us about their own struggles. A lost job here. Worry over paying the bills. Little by little as the economy tanked and I got real about things, so did my neighbors. Interestingly, they weren't always telling each other these things. I could tell by conversations we had later with other neighbors. Suddenly, my ideal of people began to fall away. I was no longer intimidated or fearful of what others would think because I knew a good many of them had very similar worries to my own. Perhaps their troubles weren't even financial, but when I began to open up, they opened up about all sorts of struggles. When many drive down our quiet streets they see a kind of privileged life, safely tucked away from harm. What I see are homes with real people, families, trying to make ends meet; thanking God for work this month in some cases. People celebrating that we're all still here because no one really wants another to meet with failure.
Financial hardship has humbled us all.
Today, we pulled our For Sale sign out of the yard. I will not recount the hours and hours of wrestling with God over this house. I realize in the end it's just a house. Ultimately, He's not overly concerned where I live. He just wants me to be obedient even when I can't see the answer (Yes, but will you keep it?"). We have been expecting an answer from our bank. It is taking longer than expected. Thousands of homeowners are trying to save their homes. I am someone trying to save my home. We have done all we can. By all human account, we shouldn't even still be here. But we are. Because for now it's God's plan. I wanted an answer before I pulled the sign up, but recent circumstances made us realize (here we are still learning) that trying to sell was fruitless. We'd sell ourselves into foreclosure. So call it a fight, if you will. Perhaps its part disciplining for our choices. I can accept that. Perhaps God wants me to fight for it because quite frankly, some days it would easier to walk away. Perhaps when we relinquish all rights to anything, He is pleased to give back the very things we give up.
In tight-laced West Michigan where appearances have ruled the landscape for so many years, perhaps he knew I'm too unconventional to ever aspire to that type of life. If I can't live truthfully, I'd rather not live. It's not me. He just wired me that way. There's a lot of hurt out there--right next door perhaps--and sometimes someone just has to be willing to admit it. A kind of circle begins to emerge when we're honest with each other. A circle of recognition. Oh, so you're touched by this thing called humanity as well? I'll be darned.
Lack of money is a great equalizer. I have more of a relationship with some of my neighbors than I ever did before. I am privileged to know them for who they really are. Proving yet again financial hardships can render some of the most powerful blessings.