Today we are talking about the spirituality of money, and, as with everything to do with spirituality, it starts with a story.
I want to tell a personal story about when I was fourteen, and what twenty dollars meant to me.
It was 1981, and back then, my family lived in Texas, in a town called Palestine. At the time, it was our habit to travel the 115 miles or so North to go to big city Dallas. We’d arrive late Friday night, since Dad had to fulfill his doctor duties. Saturday, all day was spent shopping at the ginormous Prestonwood Town Center shopping mall, and then in the evening, for dinner we’d eat at one of the restaurants nearby: Magic Time Machine, or Bennigan’s, or Ninfa’s. It was our family’s ritual of normalcy—a little shot of sanity—before having to return to Palestine on Sunday and re-enter the “same-old, same-old.”
That was a family phrase used all the time, when describing our life together. “Same-old, same old.”
But what was it, exactly?
It’s complicated. Aren’t all our stories like that?
As part of our family’s moving from Canada to Texas, Dad and Mom had arranged for our new home in Palestine to be renovated. But when we arrived in early January of 1980, the renovations were not only off-schedule and incomplete, they did not live up to my father’s perfectionistic standards. His father (who had emigrated to Canada from Ukraine and was as self-made as you can get) had become a carpenter with capital P perfectionistic standards, and he had passed that on to my Dad.
Dad fired the contractor, whom he thought a fool, and he fired the sub-contractors, whom he thought were ignoramuses.
He would do it himself. He would complete the renovations himself, using the skills his father the carpenter had taught him. This man, who worked 80+ hours a week as a medical doctor.
So where would we live in the meantime, we Canadian newcomers to the strange land of Texas?
At the Holiday Inn, Room 246. Mom and Dad in one of the Queen beds, and me and my two brothers in the other bed—all in one room.
We lived like that, while waiting for Dad to complete the renovations, for one week, for two weeks, for six weeks, for six months, and by 1981—the time in my life I’m inviting you to visit—it would be a year.
My fellow seventh and eighth graders at school knew me as the son of the new doctor in town, presumably a prestigious thing to be. But what would they say if they saw through the mask I wore every day to the reality below: that my family lived in a single room at the Holiday Inn, and I shared my bed with my two brothers?
What would they say, in fact, if they saw the actuals of what that looked like? Because in that cramped single room, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder was flaring up. There were all these strange, highly-restrictive rules we had to follow. There was nowhere to escape. The strangest thing of all was the emergence of a completely new OCD pattern in her. She started to take everyday objects (like a comb, or a light-bulb) and wrap them like they were Christmas gifts. She would do the wrapping with Holiday Inn towels or bed pads that Dad brought from the hospital, and she’d seal things up with masking tape. You never knew when a thing of yours would go missing. Every day, she wrapped two or three items and then she’d stack them on previously wrapped things, until, over time, she had something that looked like an ancient Ziggurat.
We were never to touch this mysterious thing.
What would my fellow seventh and eighth graders say, if they could see how this doctor’s son really lived?
The crisis peaked when my mother started to stack her wrapped objects at the foot of my bed—the bed of her sons—and then insisted that we were no longer allowed to sleep in it, because then her stacked objects would not stay, would be jarred by our sleeping feet, would be jostled off the bed and onto the floor. She could not have that.
Dad’s solution was to rent a second hotel room, next door. That’s where he and the boys would stay. Mom could have room 246 all to herself.
There is more to this story, but suffice it to say: this is a glimpse of the chaos I lived in, in my first year at the Holiday Inn.
In total, we would live at the Holiday Inn for two years, until Dad finally repented of his perfectionism–because it was bankrupting him. On top of the monthly mortgage payment was the hotel bill, and to this day I can’t believe how he sustained a lifestyle that burned through money the way ours did.
But I would not know that back in 1981. In 1981, we’re just trying to get through the “same-old, same-old.”
So now you might understand the importance of our family ritual of normalcy: the weekend getaways to Dallas, to Prestonwood Town Center Mall. That’s how and when Mom and Dad could indulge themselves in materialistic pleasures, which was a part of what money meant to them. Money was self-esteem. Money is what filled the hole in their hearts. Having money and using money was how you felt good about yourself. God knows, they weren’t feeling that good. My Mom knew she had OCD and how she was hurting the rest of us through it. My Dad knew that he had no clue how to handle it effectively (together with the rest of her mental problems) and therefore the hurt kept on spreading. So—just for the weekend. A bit of a moral vacation. A bit of an escape from the “same-old, same-old.”
Spending money just so you can feel a little better about your life, at least for a little while.
I will add that, in all my years growing up, I never once witnessed them give charitably. I never once saw them put their money in service to Love with a capital L. And I get it. When you don’t know how to base your self-esteem on something more reliable than money—when money is the only thing you know that makes you ok–charitable giving feels like you are cutting your own throat. It feels personally diminishing, threatening, undermining.
I get it now.
But back to the ritual of sanity. My part in this started just inside the doors of the shopping center, when Dad would peel a couple twenty dollar bills from his wallet and give one to me and one to each of my brothers. He’d say, “Take your time with this—you’ve got all day.” Then he and Mom would go off and do their thing.
We boys headed straight to the video arcade, which was named “Tilt.”
Do traditional mall arcades even exist anymore? Yes, there’s adult fun places like Dave and Busters, or kids’ places like Chuck E. Cheese. But 1981 was the heyday of video game arcades in shopping malls. If you wanted to really game, that was the place. Back then, home gaming consoles were super simplistic. You had Pong and you had Atari 2600 and it was fun but it was fiddlesticks compared to what the mall arcade offered.
As for home computers? Do the names Commodore, Sinclair, or Sharp ring any bells? I know the name “Apple” will.
But all were primitive. Two words: “floppy disks.”
Floppy home video games.
You had to go to the mall arcade to get your real kicks.
We knew we were close when the non-offensive muzak playing over the shopping mall speakers started to lose coherence and be disrupted by the growing sounds of the arcade. Sounds of Space Invaders, for example, with its deep bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep-bleep of alien creatures in rows slowly advancing upon you (if you’re the player), and you are represented by a snub-nosed and squat missile-launching machine that’s trying to destroy the aliens, and every missile you launch is a short, high-pitched whine.
Piu! Piu! Piu! Piu!
These sounds would be mingled with scores of others. One was Donkey Kong sounds: “Du-du-du-du-DU!”—that ominous sound is when the game begins, and an enormous gorilla climbs up a tall building, with a beautiful girl in a pink dress in one arm. It’s similar to music played in silent films from 70 years earlier, when the villain makes his dastardly move. But suddenly, the sounds of Donkey Kong change into something brighter: “Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-dooodle-do!” and the hero is a short guy with a mustache and the world has since come to know him as Mario and he trudges up the building one level at a time to save the princess and the sound of that trudging is squeak-squeak-squeak…..
We boys got closer and closer to the cacophony of sounds of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Flight Simulator, Pac Man, and so many others. Then we were there. Tilt. Flashing lights grabbed out at us, from a space that was cave-like, cavernous, a place you could get lost in, a place you could pretend you were someone else.
A place that was nothing like room 246 of the Holiday Inn in Palestine.
The video games would open up for me sights way stranger than my mother’s Ziggurat OCD creations, but videos I could at least control. Videos I could at least decide whether to play or not. I did not have that choice with my mother’s illnesses.
We’d enter Tilt and go straight to the change machine. Insert the twenty dollar bill. Suddenly, the crash of coins gushing down into the holding cup below. A crashing sound that took some time since twenty dollars’ worth of quarters is a lot of quarters.
That crashing sound was the sound of love to me.
I made that twenty dollars serve my deep need to feel loved, to make up for the sort I wasn’t getting.
Money was the basis of my parents’ self-esteem, and it had become that for me, too. So what about what my fellow seventh and eighth graders thought.
Twenty dollars in quarters jangling in my pocket.
Sound of love.
This is my story. One of them. And I’m going on and on about it, because I want you to go on and on about yours. It can’t happen in the space of worship, of course, but maybe you have seen something in my method that you might reproduce on your own time, with confidants who will love you into speech.
My story and your story will reveal something about how we relate to money. And the quality of that relationship—the degree to whether it is life-bringing or life-diminishing—is where the spirituality comes in.
When the relationship with money is life-diminishing, spirituality is about finding a way to healing and to a better life.
When the relationship with money is life-bringing, spirituality is about finding ways to make it even more so.
Will you agree with me that my parent’s relationship with money—and mine at fourteen—was not healthy? Was life-diminishing?
For one thing, it prevented a considerable amount of money from being used in service to making the world a better place. Though we were not consciously aware of it, we treated money like it was oxygen, and so we gulped it all up for ourselves. We thought our literal survival depended upon it. And this was life-diminishing in the sense that there was a world beyond the tight circle of our family that was also hurting, or aspiring in some way to be better, and needed us to be a part of the solution. Our survival did not, in fact, depend on money. We had so much money we could have given away generously, in service to Love, and we would have been just fine. But we did not give. We held back.
Our relationship to money hurt the public world, and it hurt us privately too. We related to money as the ground of our self-esteem when, in fact, it was only the source of a momentary high. Analogous to drug use and the high a person gets from that. But nothing truly gets solved that way. What my parents needed was friends and community that could heal their isolation and support them in naming the “same old, same old” that was my Mom’s mental illness and my Dad’s habit of enabling that, which was of a piece with his perfectionism. Naming that and claiming that and doing something constructive about that would have been a real step in the right direction towards them feeling better about themselves. But my parents never went there, and their lives ended without ever experiencing the world beyond the “same-old, same-old,” where there was real help and real hope.
Listen to me. When there’s a “same-old, same-old” in your life, you don’t have a choice in the matter. There’s going to be pain. But let it be the acute pain of making changes that will take things to a genuinely better place. Let it not be the chronic pain of allowing chaos to remain the status quo, and when the pressures of this get too much, you do what I and my family did: let off steam through some spending spree in your version of big city Dallas.
I don’t mean to sound judgmental here, towards my parents and my own 14-year-old self and anyone who equates money with self-worth. I’m not being judgmental; I’m just being urgent. Because my experiences have helped me know that we do allow the “same-old same-old” chronic pain to remain in place because, when you’ve been traumatized, you honestly forget that life could actually be better. With trauma comes forgetting, together with the emergence of survival strategies to help you manage the “same-old, same old.”
Survival strategies take over. They become like a wall you can’t see over.
But it’s time to remember. Time to see over the wall, to the life that you and I can have, which is way better than the “same-old, same-old.”
Let me say one more thing and then close.
One special reason why we need to bring awareness of the trauma-dimension that underlies our spending patterns is that, when spending patterns collide, things get explosive. Fights about money are one of the top sources of conflict in relationships of all kinds, including those we have as congregants in church community.
But things are less incendiary when we know that differences aren’t rooted in perversity but in honest experiences.
For example, say that your spending pattern is penny pinching. You embrace frugality. In no way will you be risky in your spending, even if risk might lead to tremendous gains. So you don’t like how I tend to buy nice things, or go out on a night on the town. You think I ought to tone it down. Stay home and watch Netflix. But what I do instead is go to the cinema and pay big bucks for a ticket and I even have the temerity to buy the big bucket of popcorn! The waste of all that money just drives you nuts!
And when you criticize me like that, what happens is that 14-year-old Anthony shows up. That 14-year-old who had to live in the cramped space of the Holiday Inn for two years, suffocated by the “same-old, same old,” and who felt such terrible shame about this and carried that shame with him wherever he went, and it was a real obstacle to intimacy for him for years. The crashing sound of twenty dollars in quarters and the fun he had at the video arcade was the closest he came to feeling good about himself. So don’t you take away my joy, you penny pincher you. I’ve earned it. I deserve it. How dare you!
See how this conflict is rapidly escalating into combat?
And it becomes full-on warfare because, you penny-pincher you, you have your own story too. Maybe yours is watching your parents navigate the challenges of the Depression-era, when every penny truly counted, and ever afterwards, you just never knew when the economy would tank and you always had to be ready.
To you, money was and is the magic that takes away fear.
Or maybe your story is that you experienced how a parent used money to control someone you loved. Whatever the motivations or intentions might have been, the bottom line is that the person you loved was not free. You saw them being forced to do things that were harmful to them, humiliating. But if they objected, the money lifeline would have been taken away, and the thought of that was too scary to endure. You grew up resolving never to find yourself in that position. Ever. Every penny you pinched meant a step towards greater safety.
Do you see what’s happening? On the surface, you’re simply saying, Hey, watching Netflix at home with home-made popcorn is fun too, and way less expensive than going out to the movies. But below the surface, it’s not simple at all. It’s a clash of my deep need to spend money to feel ok about myself, versus your deep need to hold on to money so that you can feel safe.
Not only is having a relationship with money inevitable for all of us, but it is inevitable that the quality of that relationship will either uplift or infect the relationships we have with other people.
The spirituality of money is a path we must all get on. What will our relationship with money be? Life-diminishing or life-bringing?
Start with your story.
Does money mean safety to you?
Does money mean self-esteem to you?
What has happened in your life that can give you answers? What’s your version of the “same-old, same-old”?
Above all—can there be a source of safety or self-esteem that transcends money? Because we all know you can be as rich as anything and the hurts of life will still find you.
Money is not a necessary evil. Money just IS, like sunlight, like rain.
All that matters is: what are we going to do with it?