DH = Dear Husband
I haven’t been sleeping well lately. And the life-giving bursts of spring all around me haven’t been giving me much life. Thoughts of muffins, egg rolls, and melted cheese have beckoned to me from some deep recess of my brain, promising to be the answer. Except for when the knot in my stomach has stifled my appetite. I could recognize the symptoms, but why? I regret to say that despite my efforts to have perspective, I became deeply worried about the slow-down in DH’s business.
In March, we could make no payment against our debt. In April, the same. There are logical reasons for this: We had a big property tax bill in March, and our finances had become such a mess that we had nothing left over to put against the debt. In both March and April, we had higher than average expenses. In both March and April, DH’s business was slow. Remarkably slow. After months of hyperactivity, the slow-down was at first a relief. By the end of the first slow month, relief gave way to philosophy: There are ups and downs in self-employment. This won’t last. After the second slow month, philosophy gave way to dread.
Our journey out of debt was launched in part due to our six years of financial stress after DH lost his career in the colossal hi-tech bust early in the millennium. I can’t adequately express the bleakness of those years, but I can tell you that I felt it more than DH did. According to Deborah Thorne’s research, as presented in Katherine Porter’s book Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class, “. . . the distress associated with severe indebtedness is gendered, with wives disproportionately reporting stress, insomnia, and depression” (Porter, p. 141). Thorne includes in her research the anecdote of a woman she calls Traci who faced bankruptcy along with her husband. “As they edged toward bankruptcy, the stress of unmanageable debts, collections calls, threats of wage garnishment, and the possibility of losing their home in foreclosure became virtually unbearable to Traci. Her feelings of despair over their financial situation left her wishing for death: ‘When I went in for surgery, I prayed to God that I didn’t wake up . . . I wanted to have an easy suicide . . . I didn’t want to live” (Porter, p. 136). I hope and believe that the extremity of Traci’s experience is rare, but there is a continuum of dread, despair, and depression that allows most of us to empathize with her.
Dave Ramsey notes the same gendered difference in response to financial stress in his book, The Total Money Makeover. “Somewhere down inside the typical lady is a ‘security gland’, and when financial stress enters the scene, that gland will spasm” (Ramsey, p. 144). My ‘security gland’ was in a spasmodic state for the better part of six years, so there is a trigger effect now, even though logic and perspective don’t justify it. Ramsey and his wife Sharon experienced bankruptcy in their twenties, and even though they have since become very wealthy, the impact of that stress is still present for her. “Her emotions can revisit the fear of looking at a brand-new baby and a toddler and not knowing how we were going to keep the heat on. That is a sensitive place in her psyche . . .” (Ramsey, p. 144).
Letting Go of Expectations
So what to do? Look on the bright side? Rustle up some positive energy? Not quite. But I have embraced a lower-key piece of wisdom that has recently come to me from three different sources: church, Oprah, and a book on health. When that happens, I pay attention. This must be meant for me, I think. (I’ve added the italics below for emphasis.)
Church Along with the congregation, I have sung these words to a hymn: “All of my ambitions, hopes, and plans / I surrender these into Your hands.”
Oprah I took notes when she visited our city. “Prepare yourself,” I scrawled. “Do all you can, and then release it. Have no attachment to what the outcome might be.”
Health Book Dr. Ben Lerner, in his book Body by God, says, “The really tough nights are when I allow my mind to race around worrying about not getting what I want . . . It is only after making the decision to let all my wants go that I finally get some rest. Nothing can be taken from me when I want nothing” (Lerner, p. 38).
It’s a tough balance to strike, but I get it. Give it your level best and hope, and at the same time, free yourself of any expectation. For me, it means that I can feel confident that we’re doing the right thing. We’re putting our efforts towards getting out of debt; we’re back on track with our monthly budgets; we’re communicating well; DH is working as hard as ever on his business. At the same time, I can feel peace when things that are beyond our control prevent us from reaching our goals – at least for the short term. Like unexpected big expenses. Or a few months of slow business. And longer term? If I answer the “What if?” questions, I come up with, “We’ll stop the business. We’ll sell the house and move into a smaller one. DH will look for another job. I won’t retire as soon as I’d planned.” Disappointing, but not the end of the world.
While women can have a tough emotional time with debt, the stereotype for men is that they are more tied up in the ups and downs of work. So there’s a double whammy for our household. “I’m here through thick and thin. ‘For richer and for poorer . . .’” I said to DH yesterday morning, putting my hands on his shoulders as I saw the strain of worry working on him. “It’s looking thin and poorer,” he said. “Well, at least it’s thin,” I smiled, patting his flattened abs. He’s had time for health and fitness lately. I believe that for both men and women, the concept of effort followed by surrender is the antidote to the sink hole of depression, whether debt or work is beyond our control. I don’t know if it is for sure, but I do know that I’ve shifted in my attitude as I’ve adopted this wisdom. And I do know that last night, I slept like a baby.