I’ve lived in terror of money all of my life until, perhaps, today. I did not realize until recently how closely money is associated with the fear that grips so many people in my community and in our country. Every day I meet or speak with someone who tells me that they live in an almost obsessive terror about money. How awful, really if you think about this psychic plague. I understand, I have been one of these people. Until recently, if I knew our very wonderful bookkeeper, a gentle and loving soul, was in the house I would drive around for an hour to avoid her, so panic-stricken was I at the thought of the bad news she had for me.
When I woke up in the night, my mind was often racing about money – when would the bills come, how would I pay them, how would I survive, what would happen to me when the money ran out, how ashamed and disgraced I would be as I fell into a pit so deep I would never climb out. When I go to the bank, I do not get a receipt stating my balance. Some people get their balance texted to them all day, I can never bear to see mine. My mind begins racing, I cannot turn it off. I’ll fall behind, be sucked under. I realize that I am not alone, that just about everyone I know has this fear, including and especially people with lots of money. It is perhaps the one thing that binds more Americans than anything else. Everyone is terrified about money.
Some of this is our culture, which advances the idea that money is the most important thing in our lives, that we desperately need to spend a lot of it to live, to be healthy, to have a roof over our heads, to grow old, to help our children through their own lives of deprivation. It’s the recession, we are told. It’s the politician’s fault. Or the banks. Some of it is trauma, a fear of danger common in dysfunctional, cruel or violent families. We are continuously assaulted with the importance of buying things, and if we get into money trouble, we are stained with humiliation and shame, maybe the thing we fear most. It is much worse to be in money trouble in America than it is to be a hateful, dishonest or corrupt politician.
And here’s my spiritual revelation. This fear is not about money. It’s not about the recession. It’s not about the economy. Our lives will not, in fact, perish if we have little or no money. If you talk to the many people who have lost all of their money, or listen to them, it is surprising to see that many are much happier and peaceful than those who fear losing it. They can get on with their lives.
And if you know a lot of people with money – I know some – then you also know money does not bring happiness or security, just another kind of terror. I have worked hard on this for years – pills, analysts, therapists, spiritual counselors. Perhaps the most important step I took was daily meditation, the first time I understood my mind and saw how it really worked.
I have been working on this fear – it is not only about money – and I am getting somewhere. Today I went to my bank and I got a receipt and I looked at it, and I was not afraid. The first time this was so. I separated my fear about money from the reality of my life. Like every single person reading this, money is important, an issue in my life in the past and now. And the fear will never completely vanish. But the fear comes from somewhere else, the little bed-wetting boy in me who has not met his adult counterpart. And this fear will not be my life, it will not end in this craven way.
Perhaps this fear comes in part from a political and corporate culture which has elevated money above all other moral, political or ethical concerns. And which needs people to be frightened of their health, their world, their future so that they will spend more money and then live in fear of not paying their mounting bills. Why, otherwise, would so many people submit to living in such fear? I see so many frightened people who seem to me so much better than the people running their lives and making them afraid.
Maybe part of this comes from the difficulty of stepping outside of our lives to see our own strength, worth and meaning. A friend talked to me this morning about her fear of money – she is a single parent with two teenagers – and I put my hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye, and I said “do not let them do this to you. You are smart, strong and wonderful. Do not trivialize your life or make yourself so small as to believe that money is central to your security, safety and your ability to have a meaningful life. Or that you are a failure because you do not have a lot. Do not live in fear of money.”
Money does not bring security, I said. Money is not the most important thing. A meaningful life trumps money every time.
And this is also what I have also learned. It is not about the recession. It is not about hard times. It is about our giving pieces of ourselves away without even knowing it. Get the receipt. Look at it. Move on to your true life.