DH = Dear Husband
A friend of DH’s recently sent him a link to a Youtube voice recording of Anthony de Mello. Neither of us had ever heard of him before, and we were both blown away as we listened to him. A Jesuit priest and psychotherapist from India, he became internationally acclaimed for his writings and conferences about spirituality before his death in 1987. DH gave me two of de Mello’s books for Christmas, and I’m now half way through Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. As I take in de Mello’s wisdom, I can’t help but see its application to personal debt.
“Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep . . . Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up” (de Mello, 5-6). For years and years, I was “asleep” to my finances. I kept no track of what I earned or what I spent. I had no concept of saving for a rainy day – or of saving for anything at all. I slipped easily into the norm of borrowing money for every significant purchase and of using my credit card often. I felt no compulsion to pay off my various debts. I lived with them in comfort, and the fact that hundreds, and eventually thousands, and tens of thousands of dollars were evaporating into interest payments did not disturb me. I married a man who was better than I was with money, but he too regarded debt as inevitable. We each earned healthy salaries, and we both liked to live “well”. Shortly after we moved into our dream home and had our third child, DH became a casualty of the hi-tech bust of the early 2000s. Suddenly, we weren’t so comfortable.
“Some of us get woken up by the harsh realities of life. We suffer so much that we wake up. But [some] people keep bumping again and again into life. They still go on sleepwalking” (de Mello, 16). On the grand scale of human suffering, unemployment isn’t very dramatic. When we consider the ravages of war, natural disasters, crime, or terrible illness, unemployment comes off as rather tame by comparison. But I’m willing to bet that most people who have endured it for an extended period of time would tell you that it was one of the worst experiences of their lives. We certainly would. After a two year roller coaster ride of uncertain employment, as one hi-tech company after another failed, DH went through six years without a job. There was occasional work, but nothing close to a reliable income. I had resigned from my part-time teaching position to be a stay-at-home mom, and I went back to work full-time. “You’re lucky you were able to support your family,” I was told several times, and I agreed. But I was miserable. We didn’t wake up though. If we had, we would have sold our big house. For a time, DH would have taken on work for which he was overqualified. We would not have leased a new car. We would not have purchased a pure-bred puppy. Instead, we were in utter denial. And we kept “sleepwalking.”
“. . . [P]eople don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful . . . It’s only when you’re sick of your sickness that you’ll get out of it” (de Mello, 6 & 12). I had a profound craving for relief. I remember indulging in fantasies about winning the lottery. But when DH purchased a small business franchise in 2009, we dared to hope that we had found a cure. Our hopes were supported through his first three years in business – which were successful in terms of challenging, satisfying, and gainful employment. But there was an underlying stress. Starting a business had meant going into significant business debt, and after years of financial distress, we were no longer comfortable with huge debt. Finally, we were ready to wake up.
In the spring of 2012, a friend of mine dropped off a copy of Dave Ramsey’s CD book, The Total Money Makeover. I had politely tolerated her occasional hints about money management over the years, but I had been asleep, and as such had been mildly irritated. This time, however, I had my awakening. The first morning I played that CD in the car on my way to work, I was astonished at the tears streaming down my face. Absolutely psyched, I listened to it again with DH that evening. Even after I had gone to bed, he kept on listening – hooked. Change was on its way. In June of 2012, we owed $257,000 for cars, business, and home. And we began our journey out of debt.
“That’s what learning is all about . . . a willingness to unlearn, to listen . . . to see. We don’t want to see . . . If you look, you lose control of the life that you are so precariously holding together. And so in order to wake up, the one thing you need the most . . . is the readiness to learn something new. The chances that you will wake up are in direct proportion to the amount of truth you can take without running away. How much are you ready to take? How much of everything you’ve held dear are you ready to have shattered, without running away?” (de Mello, 17 & 28-29)
- Waking up has definitely brought with it the irritation of which de Mello speaks. At first, tracking expenditures is annoying. Creating monthly budgets is stressful. Considering each purchase in terms of the budget seems life-sucking. But gradually, these things become habits, and there is less and less irritation.
- There is so much that we have come to “see” in society at large that fosters debt. Banks, credit card companies, businesses, the spending habits and the expectations of your family and friends – everything works together to guide you gently into the red. Statistics about debt, which used to mean nothing to me, now speak volumes. Here are a couple:
- The average debt-to-income ratio in Canada is now 165%. That means that for the typical Canadian household, for every $1.00 of annual take-home pay earned, $1.65 is owed. That’s a record high.
- 60% of Canadians retire in debt. That’s a record high too.
So you won’t get out of debt by going with the flow. You’ve got to be intentional and go against the flow. Be prepared to take some flack from “normal” people who fit in with statistical trends.
- We have also realized subtle attitudes within our own selves that we have “unlearned” – like notions of what we “deserve”; and our insistence upon having it NOW; like keeping up with the Joneses; like thinking expenditures prove love; and that happiness is linked to purchases.
- And as we have “lost control of all that we had precariously held together” we have found that things are falling into place. That underlying stress is gone. DH and I are communicating better. To date, we have paid off more than $70,000 of debt. We’re well on our way.
Perhaps you’re reading this post because you’ve got a nagging stress about your personal debt, and you’re making a New Year’s resolution to do something about it. I suspect that if that is the case, you will have one of two responses to what you’ve just read. One possibility is that you’re annoyed. That means you are still too comfortable in your bed, and you will probably go back to sleep. The other possibility is that you’re alive to the promise of change, and you want to embrace it. And that means you are ready to unlearn, to listen, to see, and to learn something new. That means you’re ready to wake up!
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