Finances, Reflection

Dwelling Places

red-brick-house-by-thomas-au-on-flickr

If I was asked to describe my house, it’d be pretty easy:  one level, three bedrooms, tiny office, open-plan living/dining, kitchen, etc… Oh, and it’s a rental.  But the funny thing about that last point is that it doesn’t actually describe my house – what it describes, I’ve come to realise, is my dwelling place.

For a long time I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of buying our own house.  In some ways it feels like it should be a given – we’re both university-educated, West works full-time, we spend as lightly as we can while providing for our family’s needs (swimming lessons are a necessity when you’re surrounded by water, and we don’t sign them up for much else), so what’s the hitch?  Well, there are lots of reasons why we haven’t been able to buy a house – and none of them, I’m quite sure, could be fairly labelled as ‘our own fault’.  We haven’t got unpaid debts, we always pay rent/bills on time, we don’t gamble or smoke and we drink very moderately…  Nevertheless, here we are, just managing and with next to no hope of owning a place of our own.

But here’s the thing:  I may not own this house, but I do live here.  I live in this house with my loving hubby and my beloved children (and even, now, with two quite adorable kitties!); we have great landlords, we live by the beach and we’re close to good schools.   Why should ‘it’s a rental’ be what I dwell on, when I’ve got all those other positive things to focus on??!  And yet that is my focus.

I realise that I’m not alone in this.  It’s all too easy to find ourselves dwelling on the things that aren’t living up to our expectations; the hurts, the heartaches, and the difficulties.

Maybe you wanted another child, and it just hasn’t happened.  You might live in a mansion with a devoted husband and three healthy children, take wonderful overseas holidays, go to lavish parties and enjoy countless opportunities but be completely blind to the joy and wonder of your life because you couldn’t have a fourth child.  And you can’t fathom the situation you find yourself in, because it just seems so easy for others and for you it has been loss after loss after loss, and your heart is raw and bleeding and you feel like you’ve lost who you were before all the sadness.

Maybe you’ve been passed up for all the promotions and you feel like your career’s at a dead end.  You may earn plenty to live on and enjoy your work when you’re not thinking about that corner office on the fifth floor that should have been yours, and maybe it’s nice being able to leave your work at work and get home to your family but you’d never admit it…  You’re tired and you’re bitter and when you think about it you’d never have believed that at this age you’d still be in this position, at this company, working for these fools who don’t even appreciate you…

Maybe you’ve trained for something and just as you were about to go out and prove yourself you sustained a devastating injury.  All the blood, sweat, and tears – down the drain.  No medal.  No accolades or lucrative endorsement deals.  No acknowledgement or reward for those thousands of hours – those years – of slogging away to be the best, only to have it all end in defeat.  And now you’re a hollow shell of what you once were, because all that potential was never realised in the end.  You feel like a ‘has been’ who never was.

We all have broken dreams.

We’ve all suffered loss.  We’ve all grieved for the person we were before we experienced this disappointment – for the naïve hope that we held for what has not come to pass.  And maybe some of us even feel a bit foolish – I know I do.  Foolish that we ever thought it possible; foolish to have dared dream, or foolish that we haven’t somehow made those dreams a reality.  Foolish for still hoping that somehow, someday…

And there are always those who seek to minimise our losses – to brush away our despair with a breezy, “Well, why should you care so much about having another baby/getting promoted/winning that medal/buying a house?  After all, there are plenty of people who aren’t even able to have kids/work/run or swim or dance/keep any kind of roof over their heads!”  And it just doesn’t help, does it, to hear that?

Truly, when we hope for something, work for something, or strive for something, and those dreams don’t come to fruition, we need space to grieve.  We really do need to give ourselves the freedom to feel that disappointment and process what it means for us.

In processing my own disappointment, I realise that for me it’s not just about owning our own home – it’s partly about that; about how I don’t quite feel like a grown-up, and how when my friends start chatting about renovating or landscaping or whatever, I feel utterly unqualified to contribute to the discussion.  It feels like everyone else our age is at the stage now where they’re secure enough financially to start looking at holiday homes or building up or taking overseas vacations, building up their retirement savings, and making plans for the future, while we’re really just barely hanging on by our fingernails.  And in the bigger picture, not owning a home raises questions for me about how we’re providing for our children and how we’re going to provide for ourselves and not burden them with supporting us in our old age…  To think that once upon a time I dreamed of having a home with a granny flat just so that my folks could stay close by.  How far we are from that dream of being able to provide for them!

For you, too, who want a child or who want more than you can have – it’s about more than just that.  It’s about passing on your wisdom and experience, nurturing, being held close and having your young ones depend on you – it’s about your vision for a big family and what that would feel like…  I know that your disappointment is bigger than what the rest can see when they look at the checks and balances of your life.

And for you, who’ve found that the rungs on the ladder to what you deemed to be success were greased or missing, making that climb to the realisation of your dreams an impossibility.  It’s not just the title on your name plate or the medal or the corner office you’d have liked – it’s about much more than that.  Recognition.  An affirmation that your choices have been the right ones.  And so much more.

I don’t for a moment want to negate the impact those disappointments – big and small – have had on us.  But I believe we need more than that, too.  I believe that we also need to be encouraged to look beyond the hurt to the wholeness.

How is it that I’ve found myself living here – in the boulevard of broken dreams (as Green Day so aptly put it)?  I’ve built a dwelling-place for myself here, brick by brick.  Every pang of jealousy, every flush of envy, every bitter remark about how it’s all so unfair… each one a brick in this house that I’ve built on the boulevard of broken dreams.

The thing about this boulevard is that we don’t actually have to dwell here.  We ALL have to walk it – whether it be for a short phase in our life or even for the majority of our days here on earth – but we don’t all lay down a foundation and add bricks and mortar and put up a picket fence and plant trees here…

Now that I’ve realised that I’ve put down some roots in this dead-end street (yeah, turns out it’s not a boulevard at all), it’s time to do some demolition.

When you start to pull those bricks down and chip away at the mortar you realise that the walls you’ve built as you’ve been dwelling in the boulevard of broken dreams have been obscuring a view.  All this time, there’s been an AMAZING VIEW that you’ve been missing:

There are vineyards on the landscape that you’d thought barren; they’re heavy with ripe fruit, ready for the picking.  The sun, for so long hidden from view, beams down benevolently from blue skies – and there you’d been, imagining that the night you’d fled when you’d retreated was a perpetual one…  People who love you have been knocking on that impenetrable door you’d erected, clamouring to break into the silence into which you’d been muttering the lies you believed were going to drive them away.

Suddenly you realise that this place you’ve built has blinded you to what you really should have been seeing on all along.  By focusing on what you lack, you’ve obscured what you possess.

I’m sure I will always have pangs of grief – when I pass a realtor’s office, page through a real estate magazine, or see a ‘For Sale’ sign on my street, I know I’ll feel a fleeting stab of regret.  It’s inevitable that news of someone buying a house will make me wonder what that would be like, and if I’ll ever experience it.  But I can change how much that affects me, and how long I’m affected, by focusing on three things:

Do I have sufficient?  Maybe there’s no surplus.  Maybe I don’t have exactly what I hoped for; but I have enough.  Enough food, enough to buy medicine when necessary, enough to clothe and shelter us.

Am I grateful?  Am I mindful of how little so many others have in comparison?  Am I looking to fill the needs of those around me instead of holding tightly to what I have?  Am I being generous of spirit, showing that generosity towards those who have more as well as those who have less?

Am I content?  Do I practice intentional contentment?  Have I learned to trust enough in God’s provision to let go of my need to stockpile and control?  Am I striving to do more for others instead of more for myself?  Am I exemplary in my practice of grace in the midst of struggle?

I’ve come to realise that, for me, these three things give me a victory.  If I have sufficient, then I’m not needy – and I shouldn’t have a mentality of being a ‘have not’.  If I’m grateful, then I’m not allowing my lack to obscure my blessings.  If I’m content, then whatever life throws at me, I will have such grace and joy that those around me won’t feel guilty for having something that I lack.  Those who witness my life will understand that God is my sufficiency; that He sees to the provision of my needs; and that I am content to wait for His perfect timing for that provision.

I can see that there is such freedom in this kind of homelessness – the kind you get when you demolish the house you’ve built on the boulevard of broken dreams.  Freedom from bitterness and resentment; freedom from being dragged over and over again into the depths of disappointment and mired in the muck of defeat.  Long may we be free; may we never let our disappointments define us.

If you want me, I’ll be here, walking the road but not dwelling in it – reflecting, instead, on all the blessings that are no longer obscured – and removing these old walls we’ve built, brick by brick.

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Life, Money, Philosophy

What’s It Worth?

Treasure by autocratrix

 

(Disclaimer:  Sorry, guys – it’s another long one!  Just saying what I need to say… You just read what you need to read!)

 

I – we – haven’t got a lot of money.  We don’t own a lot of stuff.  We live just within our means, but there’s not a lot left over.

Of course, the truth of all those statements is relative.

We haven’t got a lot of money. 

Relative.  Compared with someone in the third world, or even in a poorer area of the first world, we’re RICH.  Someone else’s ‘not a lot of money’ might mean using food stamps, or clipping coupons in order to afford essentials.  Another person might feel that they haven’t got a lot because they’re mortgaged to the brink and wondering how they’re going to scrimp and save to keep affording the payments.  Still another might be a middle-income earner in a higher-income area.  How much money we think we have is very relative.

We don’t own a lot of stuff. 

Again, totally relative.  I don’t think we own a lot of things because we haven’t ever bought a lot of those things that our peers in this city have bought – I’ve never gone out and chosen a living-room set, for instance.  We’ve almost never bought furniture – in almost thirteen years of marriage we have only bought our bed, a few nursery pieces, a couple of bookcases, and a TV console.  But we’ve been so richly and generously blessed by our friends and family each time we’ve moved that we haven’t had to buy things.  We’ve happily made do with hand-me-downs, and we’ve never been left sitting or sleeping on the bare floor – but plenty, plenty of people in the world do live in unfurnished surroundings, and plenty do sleep on the floor.  Even those whose furnishings and possessions would seem extremely meagre to us might look pityingly on those who have nothing, who have to pick over the garbage heaps for food and sustenance. And even those whose furnishings would seem opulent to us might look over at their neighbours’ pool/boat/car/TV/jewellery and feel like their own circumstances were sparse.

We live just within our means, but there’s not a lot left over.

Well, this is a great one, isn’t it?!  I mean, any of us could say that – it just means that we’re as good at spending as we are at earning.  Not a terribly complicated equation, that one.  What matters, really, is whether true essentials are within our means.  And that, of course, depends on how you distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’.

West and I realized early on that our life together would be complicated; it always is when you come from beloved families who live on separate continents.  We realized that we were always going to have to channel some of our resources into a travel fund, so that we could visit regularly with the family furthest from us.  We also realized that this would mean sacrifices, and it has.  Had we not been committed to this travelling, we’d undoubtedly have been able to save a good down payment for a house. But neither West nor I can imagine having to sacrifice that personal contact with family that we hold so dear in order to afford a house of our own.  And neither of us was willing to sacrifice our relationship, even in those early stages, to avoid facing these complications.

Money is such a complicated issue.  Many of us can recount stories of how financial issues have brought out the worst in people: arguments over wills; jealousy over other people having more; miserly behaviour in those who are too careful, too concerned, too covetous of ‘financial security’; the devastation of stock crashes leading to substance abuse and the destruction of families…

I might feel that we don’t have a lot of money, but we’ve never had a big debt hovering over our heads.  We’ve always paid our credit cards on time.  We’ve always had enough – even if sometimes only just enough (during some scary lean times) – to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.  We might not have always been able to afford the neighbourhood we’d have liked to live in (this lovely spot we’re living in by the grace of my parents’ generosity; we rent the upstairs of their house for far lower than its market value – otherwise we’d be a lot further from family and friends), but we’ve lived within our means and managed to save enough for a visit overseas every other year.

I might feel that we don’t have a lot of stuff, but actually we have more stuff than we have room for, and it’s driving me crazy!  All the clothes – the in-between sizes and out-of-season things – pile up with nowhere to go; the art supplies and papers and books and toys are everywhere…  We’ve got a LOT of stuff.  Maybe not precious stuff – or only sentimentally precious – but stuff, nonetheless.  And stuff can really weigh you down; so how many things do we really want around us?  How many possessions can we stuff into our houses, into our lives, without ending up suffocated by them?

I might not feel like we have a lot left over at the end of each month, but what is really important is how we make room in our budget to do good.  I’m not talking about ‘I’m doing good, real good…’ (I don’t talk like that) – I’m talking about helping others.  Looking to the needs of other people.  Using our resources to affect change, no matter how small.  It’s not important how much we have; it’s what we do with it that counts.

So perhaps it’s time to dig a little deeper.  Maybe it’s time to ask some questions, and see whether we’re comfortable with our answers.

 

Do we use our money to look after the comfort of others, or only ourselves?

How can we lighten someone else’s load?  What’s someone struggling with that we could alleviate?  We often don’t have to look far, although most of us are aware of the grinding poverty in which much of the rest of the world languishes.  What matters is that we do look, and do act to provide comfort and sustenance to others.  We shouldn’t be so worried about storing up money for a rainy day that we forget that others live under a cloud their whole lives.

Do we use our money to manipulate others?

This is a tough one, I know.  Do we offer or withhold assistance to friends or family based on whether or not we feel they’re doing what we want them to do?  If it’s within our means to send our kids to tertiary education, for instance, but we’re only willing to do so if it’s the field of study we want them to pursue.  Are we only willing to extend a hand to those whose faith or values mirror our own, or are we gracious and open-handed in giving of our resources and ourselves without discrimination?

Do we master our money or does it master us? 

If money always dictates what we do and how we do it, the money has become our master.  Too many of us say, “I’d love to give more…” or “I wish I could help…” and do nothing.  But our spending is often tremendously discretionary.  If there’s no room left for stewardship – protecting the environment, caring for the world’s people – then we need to shift our priorities, and our resources.  People have told me that they’d have loved another child, but they didn’t think they could afford it.  We live in an area where many people have a huge mortgage, two cars, and regular vacations – chances are, they could afford it but they don’t want to give anything up to do so.  Life is all about give and take. If we allow financial concerns to dictate all our choices, then we are serving money instead of allowing it to serve us and our needs.

Does our money bring us peace and a sense of freedom, or does it bring us stress and a sense of constraint?

This one’s fairly self-explanatory; if we’re constantly worrying about money, we don’t have much energy left over for other things.  This means that hopes, dreams, creativity, and generosity are crowded out.  It means that we’re more likely to be tight-fisted and less likely to look to the needs of others.  Worrying too much about our money makes us its prisoner and takes captive those we might otherwise have helped as well.

Knowing that money can have a strangle-hold on us means that we should be aware that many of the people we might envy for their ‘plenty’ might be wanting in other areas; they might be spiritually bereft or emotionally depleted.  When we look to the needs of others, we shouldn’t dismiss the rich out of hand just because they have some advantages; there are disadvantages, too, that go part and parcel with wealth.

Are we living within, or beyond, our means?

Being free and generous with our money doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible with it.  Financing our lifestyle with the bank’s money is an easy road to ruin.  No matter how much or how little money we have, we are accountable for its use and answerable for its waste.

How does our money situation change our perspective on life and what matters?

How do we view those who have lots of money and those who have none? It can be easy to mistake ‘net worth’ for true worth.  And it’s equally easy to assume that true contentment or happiness are within reach if we just get that raise or we just win that lottery…  But money isn’t the answer, clearly. Poor people can still be happy, and (as I mentioned above), the rich can still be miserable.

Money shouldn’t matter too much.  Our concern for financial security and our possessions shouldn’t supersede our concern for other people.  Work shouldn’t be higher in importance than our family.  Time together and other intangible joys found in relationship should not be sacrificed at the altars of ambition and acquisition.

‘Enough is a feast’

This is one of my favourite sayings.  It is a reminder to constantly re-adjust my perspective on money and success.  It’s so easy to have a warped understanding of both – constant adjustment is necessary to align myself again with the Truth:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

– Matthew 6:21

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What do you treasure most in your life?  Is the way you use your money an accurate reflection of these values?

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