Releasing the obsession with possession is a me-hugging idea

churchill-giving-quote1Pope Francis’s latest tough-love sting was against people who are too wrapped up in consumerism, at the cost of our spiritual individual and collective lives.

We live in a world that is always more artificial, in a culture of ‘making,’ of ‘profit,’ where without realizing it, we exclude God from our horizon…
Often today, giving freely is not part of daily life, where everything can be bought and sold, where everything is calculated and measured — Pope Francis, March 5, 2014
Instead of keeping balance sheets in the heart, he tells us that the best way to give is to not expect anything in return.  This way, he said, people can free themselves “from the obsession of possession, from the fear of losing what we own, from the sadness of those who do not want to share their well-being with others.”

He tells us that the downside of not just having stuff, but loving our stuff, costs more than cash or credit because it’s taxed with our peace of mind.  Once you have stuff, you invite fear–fear of losing it, fear of having it taken.  We have to be on alert and vigilant.  Maybe even anxious.  Perhaps that’s why so many people think back nostalgically to times when they had nothing, but were happy.  I remember when my husband and I were just married, we had very little.  We were leaving for the day shortly after moving into our first place, and I asked him, “Shouldn’t we lock the door?”  To which he responded, “Nah, if a robber came in, he’d probably feel sorry for us and leave us a buck.”

I got no lock on the door
That’s no way to be
They can steal the rug from the floor
That’s OK with me
Cause the things that I prize
Like the stars in the skies
All are free!
–I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin, George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess

So excessive attachment to our stuff causes us to be fearful.  Pope Francis also talks about the sadness obsession with possession brings, because being preoccupied with our stuff cuts us off from others.  We become territorial.  We develop a “what’s mine is mine” mentality, and to protect what’s mine, like every toddler, we become little watchdogs to prevent others from getting too close.  It’s a zero-sum game.   If they get, I lose.

Well, actually, some say it’s not a zero-sum game.   When I share or when I give, I don’t lose.  I gain.  Who says so?  Well, the Bible for one, which instructs us to give our first one-tenth to God.  And what does that do?  It makes us prosper.  It makes US prosperous.  And this is not just a woo-woo idea by a New Age author or a biblical scholar.  George Clason says in the classic prosperity book, The Richest Man in Babylon.  Modern-day financial guru David Bach teaches the same in his blog:

This notion—that the more we give back to others, the more comes back to us—is not simply a religious doctrine; it is virtually a law of nature. If you are looking to attract more wealth and happiness into your life, the fastest way I know how is to give more.

He said it–it is a law of nature.  We are hard-wired to share.  It makes us feel good, and somehow a flow is generated by giving that acts like a boomerang–it all comes back to us with more.   Obsession with stuff=sad; Sharing=glad!    Plus, a side benefit of letting go of obsession with possession is that by buying less, you are minimizing the impact of all this stuff on our air, land, and water.

In short, sharing, giving, and anti-consumerism may sound like a tree-hugging idea, but it is really a me-hugging idea.

How do we know if we are obsessed with our stuff?   Good question.  Richard Foster, in his book Freedom of Simplicity, offers a simple way to find out.   He says to start by just giving something away.   Not that ugly shirt you got for Christmas.  Give away your favorite shirt.   Just for the fun of it.  Examine your feelings when you do.     Frankly, as for me, way too often when I think about releasing many of my own possessions I feel exactly like that young man in the New Testament that turned away sad after Jesus proposed to him that his possessions may be coming between him and his spiritual yearnings.   Like him, I’ve already flunked the entrance exam.

We have, for the past several decades, established the paradigm that progress is measured in GDP.  Outward upward mobility is more important than inward upward mobility.   But we are seeing that there is a hangover that comes with the addiction to stuff.  We are seeing many symptoms of a sick society, and it’s nothing a little more sharing, a little less hoarding couldn’t cure.

I remember a book I read in grammar school about a dad who gave his son and daughter each their own garden to tend.  Each child started with the same size plot of land and the same number of flower seeds.  Both gardens grew and flourished.   One day the boy decided to cut some flowers for his teacher; his sister didn’t want to deprive herself of the beautiful blooms she had cultivated.  One day the boy decided to cut some flowers for the elderly neighbor; again, the sister didn’t want to share the flowers–she was enjoying them too much.  The boy continued to cut his flowers and give them away; the girl continued to keep them for herself.

Anyone who knows anything about gardening knows exactly what happened.  The boys garden soon was prolific in its blooms–because every flower cut yielded at least two more.  The girl’s garden unfortunately just went to seed and languished.   The moral of the story if obvious.  Who had the prettiest garden now?

Some people, proponents of the gift economy like Charles Eisenstein, are suggesting that maybe we see that this story is not just a parable about a family garden–but perhaps the concepts are true on a global scale.  Perhaps we dismantle some of the economic dogmas that are proving to be counter-productive, such as the idea that hoarding money–when our brothers are in need and when our resources are being decimated–might bite us in the butt very soon.  Maybe we have to redefine progress on an individual level, and then scale that up to local and global models of economic development.

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.  –C.S. Lewis

What’s Your New Year’s Prosperity Affirmation?

bart-simpson-chalkboard_www-txt2pic-comThis year I’m not doing New Year’s resolutions.  I’m doing New Year’s affirmations.

Remember when our teachers made us write things on the board 100 times in order to modify our behavior?  Well, maybe they had something in common with people like James Allen and Wayne Dyer.  And maybe they were really on to something.

I got an Amazon gift card from my son for Christmas.  So, I spent some time perusing the seemingly limitless choices, and then a light bulb when off.  Why not get one of Tom Butler-Bowdon‘s books?  Years ago I got his 50 Success Classics on MP3 and listened while I was driving.  I loved it.  It was just enough to get the gist of the classic works, already abstracted and synthesized.  And the bonus is his “In a Nutshell” where he gives you the key takeaway of the whole book.

So, getting his one book is like getting 50 books–and 50 great, time-tested books at that.

This time around, I chose 50 Prosperity Classics.   That choice may seem weird for someone like me, who writes about people like Peace Pilgrim and Charles Eisenstein and who basically feels that unlimited economic prosperity is going to ruin the environment.  But I looked at the list of authors in this book and they called out to me:  people like James Allen, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Friedman, Paul Hawken, Ayn Rand, Dave Ramsey and Muhammad Yunus.  If that’s not a diverse group of people to put under the prosperity umbrella, I don’t know what is.

What struck me immediately as I started to move through some of the authors was a common thread–the idea that manifesting prosperity is a matter of affirming your prosperity today.  And to me, prosperity doesn’t mean dollars and cents necessarily.  I’m not looking to be a millionaire, or own a better car than the one I currently have (a 2007 Prius), and I certainly don’t want more rooms to clean.  To me, prosperity is about thriving in a holistic sense.  Having physical needs fulfilled is part of it, but really, to me, it’s about creating conditions for your mental, physical, and spiritual being to thrive so that God can work through you.  Prosperity can be the happy result of unclogged spiritual plumbing.  Spiritual clogs can be fear, doubt, lack of imagination, lack of belief, and resignation.

A while back, I touched on Wayne Dyer and his book Wishes Fulfilled.  As a result of reading his book, I spun off with an interest in Anita Moorjani and Neville Goddard.   Reading the 50 Prosperity Classics I was reminded of these inspiring writers who join with James Allen, and Catherine Ponder, and Napoleon Hill in advising us to BE what we want to be NOW.  Don’t say, “I’m going to be healthier.”  Say, “I AM healthy.”   Don’t say, “I’m going to be able to pay my bills.” Say “I AM able to pay my bills.”

Once of the basic tools most of these folks teach in order to manifest prosperity in life is the use of affirmations, like  Catherine Ponder’s “I am the radiant child of God, my mind, body and affairs now express his radiant perfection.” 

Some people may think that affirmations are New Age-y and cheesy, but the most pragmatic, successful people believe in the power of the imagination–people like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, who simply affirmed and asserted their unique visions.  They didn’t let “reality” stop them from manifesting who they were and what they were here on earth to do.  Reality is what we make of it.  It’s not a wall–it’s the window of our minds, thoughts, and hearts.

All these prosperity books are replete with stories of people who were able to manifest their realities.  I might think those stories were fiction, if I didn’t have a story of my own, but I do.    Someday I’ll tell it.

Bottled Water: A Simple Question With a Complex Answer

In my last post I referenced the author and speaker Charles Eisenstein.  Because I “liked” his Facebook page I get posts about his travels and articles from time to time.  I’m going to reprint some excerpts from the one I got yesterday.  I thought it was so good, I would recommend that if you are interested, go to his site and read the whole article.

I really liked this article for a couple of reasons:

  1. I identified with the title Nestlé executive.  Having been a VP in a global marketing firm (and actually having had Nestlé as my client on a few projects) I could stand in her shoes, interested in doing the best job possible, both for the company and for the society it serves.   I could also identify with the young girl who asked the rather accusatory question–I certainly have my own questions about Big Business and its ability to serve the public good without further damage to the earth, simply because the goals of business and environmentalism are inherently at odds with each other in most cases.
  2. The simple question put to the Nestlé executive by a young student was about Nestlé’s manufacture of bottled water.  But the answer was not so simple, and that’s what I really liked about Eisenstein’s piece:  It acknowledged that there is no benefit to a black/white, either/or mentality.  There is no benefit to pitting Us against Them and pointing fingers, simply because  we’re all in this together.   The question of “shouldn’t you stop making bottled water” calls into question not only market supply and demand, but also the lifestyle we’ve chosen for ourselves that necessitates water on the run, the current state of our natural resources to which we have all contributed, and our personal stories we live inside–of the Evil Corporations rolling towards us, the Helpless Citizens, tied to the rails.    But Charles Eisenstein gives each of us more power than that.

Well, I’ll let you judge for yourself by linking to the article, The Lovely Lady from Nestle on this website.  The bottled water question is emblematic of the whole tangled web we’ve woven, and the need for all of us to take responsibility in addressing the pressing questions of our future lives on this planet.

I am providing some excerpts, reluctantly.  I would reprint the whole thing, but I don’t have the author’s permission.  Printing the excerpts is nothing but a hatchet job of a very lucid piece, so I hope you link directly to The Lovely Lady From Nestle by Charles Eisenstein

The Lovely Lady from Nestlé
Charles Eisenstein

At a conference recently I happened to overhear a conversation between one of the speakers, a vice-president of Nestle Corporation, and a college student who was questtioning the VP’s glowing portrayal of Nestle’s social and environmental policies.

The student bravely interrogated the VP about their leading beverage category, bottled water. “Do we really need such a thing?” she asked. And, “I understand you are using 40% less plastic per bottle, but wouldn’t it be better to use no plastic at all?”

To each query, the VP had a persuasive, thoroughly reasoned response. Bottled water meets a real need in a society on the go. And did you know that raw ingredient for making the plastic bottles is a byproduct of producing gasoline from petroleum? If it doesn’t go toward bottles, it will end up as some other plastic product or dumped directly into the environment. Glass uses way more energy to produce. And tap water is no longer pure.


The VP’s positions are unassailable unless we can expand the scope of the conversation. We have to ask questions at the level of, “What role do plastic bottles play in the accelerating pace of modern life, why is this acceleration happening and is it a good thing?” “Where does our busyness and need for convenience come from?” “Why is our tapwater becoming undrinkable?” “Why do we have a system in which it is OK to produce waste products that are unusable by other life forms?” And, “Is the ‘sustainable growth’ championed by Nestle possible on a finite planet?”


In fact, the corporations don’t have all the power at all. They only do within the framework of a universe of force. In a universe of love, things are not at all hopeless. If we see the VP and people like her as people just like ourselves, then they can change as we have changed. …Maybe there is a time for fighting, for matching force with force. But I think if we carefully examine our victories in social and environmental justice, we will find that it was the power of conscience, compassion, and love that powered those victories.

Some random thoughts on money

ImageMoney:  Just a means of exchange?

One day my great uncle, at that point a young lawyer, came home to find his wife, my Great aunt Florence, crying.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Aunt Florence tearfully told him that she had torn up an envelope, thinking it was junk mail, and later realized there had been a check for $100 in it, payment for a short story Uncle Edwin had written for Boys’ Life.  $100 was a good chunk of change back then in 1920, around the time this occurred.

“Acchh, money,” said Uncle Edwin, consoling her.  “It’s just a means of exchange.”

If only he were right.  Seems pretty simple and I guess most fundamentally, he is right.  But we attach so much more to it—our security, our identity.  We trade it for what we think will give us comfort, prestige, success, beauty, and an aura of intelligence and even wisdom.

“When you’re rich, they think you really know” sings Tevya in the musical Fiddler On The Roof

But what exactly are we exchanging?

So we exchange away, we exchange our lives for this means of exchange.  We labor. Too often it means working in jobs we hate, working for people who demean us or exploit us.

Then we get our paychecks, and seek ways to find recompense for the unfulfilling hours of our lives we’ve spent to acquire it — trading it for stuff to make us comfortable, prestigious, successful, beautiful.

Sometimes we find we don’t have enough of this exchange medium, so then we go further and exchange our future for it—we go into debt.   By going into debt we build walls between ourselves and our liberty, because now we have to work harder and longer servicing the debt.  We exchange our future for more exchange medium.

Ultimately this “means of exchange” winds up being the medium of our prison.  We have taken what would be a better guarantee of happiness—more time with family and friends and greater choice of right livelihood—for an illusion.

“Money makes the world go round”  sings the M.C. in another musical, “Cabaret.”

So, what if we took money out of the equation? 

What if we found a way to eliminate money from our lives?  Screeech!!!

I can hear the sound of the needle on the LP screeching to a halt—all the music stopping and all that’s left is silence as people think, “huh??”

But, we HAVE to have money!

If all of a sudden money went up in a poof of smoke, or if it were exposed as the illusion it truly is, what would happen?

Would we disappear from the earth?  No.  We might be more in touch with it.

Would we still have access to food, shelter, clothing?   Well, think about it.  Perhaps we would then learn to work cooperatively in communities and share labor and simple resources, like they do in Amish communities.  We would, as part of this shared community, cultivate and grows plants from real seed for real food.   We would share livestock, birds, and fish.

Wouldn’t our lives be pure drudgery?  How would we have fun?   Despite what people think in this high-tech entertainment world, fun is fundamentally available for free.  We’ve just forgotten how to have fun without paying for it.

Yes, Virginia, there is life beyond Versace, contrary to what the advertising world will tell you.    There is even life without money.  The birds do it, and the bees do it.

“Look at the lilies of the field.  They neither labor nor spin” says Jesus (Matthew 6:28)

So, what is a world without money?

I am not an economist by any means.  But I think it’s interesting to just sit for a moment and challenge the paradigm that we have to have money in its current form to live.  Really.  Think about it.  What if our current caste system, which is driven by our “net worth,” was gone?    What if there was a New World summit that could hammer out solutions for removing the source of social inequality, greed, misplaced ambitions, years of hard labor, and the idea of “retirement.”

Think about it.    Just imagine a world without currency as a means of exchange.

Sacred Economics

That’s what I’ve been pondering since reading a couple of books related to a concept called the gift economy.  The first, Sacred Economics, by Charles Eistenstein.  The book description:

“A broadly integrated synthesis of theory, policy, and practice, Sacred Economics explores avant-garde concepts of the New Economics, including negative-interest currencies, local currencies, resource-based economics, gift economies, and the restoration of the commons. Author Charles Eisenstein also considers the personal dimensions of this transition, speaking to those concerned with “right livelihood” and how to live according to their ideals in a world seemingly ruled by money.”

An Elevated Life

There are many, many ideas laid out in Sacred Economics, and there are so many provocative ones.  One of the primary ideas is that our current system promotes a scarcity economy, while a gift economy promotes a plentitude economy.  I love the fact that Eisenstein presents his ideas in a way that shows that by giving up some of our profane habits, we elevate ourselves to the sacred.   There is no reason to think that giving up money is going to diminish us—on the contrary, it will elevate us.  It will open up all kinds of opportunities for right livelihood.  We bow into service to a life worth living.  We serve each other and by serving one, we serve all.  This is not laying down our daily lives for a company that exploits, denudes, or deprives.   Eisenstein says,

“It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, ‘I can’t afford to do that.’”

By the way, in keeping with the spirit of the philosophy of sacred economics, you can buy the book, or you can read it online for free.

The Appeal to our Self-Interest

The main reason for exploring this new way of thinking about money at all is one which should appeal to our self-interest:  Our current growth economy is simply not sustainable.

We are going to deplete all of nature’s resources and basically hand over our survival on this planet to the 1%, because income disparity will continue to widen, and the resulting impoverishment will run deep—even as the natural resources of the Earth dry up.    Something to think about.

Deep Economy from the Well of Community

The other book I read which is not specifically on the concept of gift economy but certainly outlines a transition to a more sustainable economy is Deep Economy by Bill McKibben.  McKibben, author of many seminal books on ecology and climate change, offers some interesting alternatives to a more sustainable way of doing things right in our own backyard.   For instance, simply orienting ourselves to our local communities will help right some of the inherent dangers in relying on giant corporations and foreign exports to drive our consumption.

In doing so, we build valuable social capital, and McKibben quantifies that social capital.  He shows us that the way we are living now–consuming mindlessly with false assumptions about true value–is built on faulty logic.  The same faulty logic that is used to justify working 40 hours a week simply because we think we“have to work”, even if by working we have to pay for childcare, car payments, transportation costs, work clothes and eating out.  The same faulty logic that justifies eating cheap, processed food, even when the long term costs in terms of our health will be so much greater.

Is All Growth Inherently Good?

It’s natural to think that all growth is good.  After all, nature is prolific in how it grows.  Human life is prolific in its growth as well.  So, it makes sense that we see economic growth the same way.  But not all growth is positive and life-affirming.  Cancer grows and cuts off life by upsetting the delicate balance of natural systems in the body.   Unrestrained economic growth is the same kind of cancer—taking over, dominating, crowding out the sacred connections to the broader, more organic systems in our communities and our culture at large.

We can go along on the current path, believing that “capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way.”  Or, we can open our minds to another way.   Improve the capitalism we have now.  Or come up with something entirely different.

Challenging the Retirement Paradigm Case Study 2: Joan, the elementary school principal

Blessed are those who enlighten the rest of us with their quest for quality--and get paid, too!

We need to consider that some people may not want to “retire” because they like their jobs.  As Confucius once said, if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.   Many of this type of worker is a professional in a service industry, or they are lucky enough to earn a living off of their art or other passions.

I ran into Joan at a restaurant one Friday night.  I hadn’t seen her in several years, but I had actually helped to hire her decades ago as principal of the school that my kids went to.   We chatted and while we were catching up on family and life events, I was doing the math in my head and calculated that Joan was well past the point at which she might have collected her pension and retired from her lifelong career as an educator.

“So, Joan, are you thinking of retiring at all?”  I asked her.

“Well, I could, but my job is getting easier, so I figure, why retire?”

“It’s getting easier?”  I asked, surprised.  After all, a lot of educators I meet complain about the lack of support they get on every level, as well as the challenges of their students who often are distracted from learning by familial, social, and economic factors.

“Yes,” she continued.  “There are a lot more Asians in the neighborhood now, and they make my life easier.  The parents are supportive and involved and the children are motivated.  So, it makes my job easy.”

Joan is not going anywhere soon.  She may as well continue being of service in the community as long as she enjoys it.

Most of the early retirement how-to books I’ve seen are proponents of being completely financially independent so you can quit your job and travel and go wherever the wind blows you.  If you have a job that lacks meaning and you have no intention of seeking greener career pastures, working for financial independence with the goal of not working at all is a great goal.

But wouldn’t it be heaven to be able to accept the money you earn as kind of icing on the cake–not the pot at the end of the rainbow?  Who wants to chase that rainbow, anyway?   You totally miss the journey if you do.

Shortly after Steve Jobs died, I read his biography by Walter Isaacson.  One thing that struck me was Jobs’ ambivalence towards money.   In fact, this ambivalence manifested itself in some nasty fights with his Board of Directors at Apple.  While the Board of Directors and the stockholders a healthy profit as their “True North,” Jobs saw profit as secondary.   His True North was always Quality.

Steve Jobs relentlessly pursued Quality–in much the same way Ayn Rand spoke through architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and the same way  in which Robert Pirsig maintained his motorcycle in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In the meantime, he made money.  Lots of it.

If you are lucky enough to have gotten to the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and are profiting from it, you are in company with Steve Jobs and Howard Roark.   But most of us need to earn money in more mundane ways while working on actualizing ourselves.  (By the way, for inspiration on that front, I highly recommend a visit or revisit to those two classic books I mentioned above.)


It’s also worth noting that even the shine of idealism that motivates people in the service professions tarnishes.  In the book Rethinking Retirement–How to Create the Life You Want Without Waiting to Retire, the author, financial planner Keith Weber, talks about one of his clients, a teacher:

I learned Jeff was covered by a state pension program that used the ‘Magic 75’ formula where he would qualify for full retirement benefits when his age and years of service combine to equal 75.  At age 57 with 17 years of service, he was just a few years away.  You can imagine my surprise then, when he responded to my question, ‘When would you like to retire?’ by saying ‘I want to leave at the end of this year.’

‘But why?’ I asked.  ‘You’re so close to being able to retire with full benefits.’

Without missing a beat he said, ‘Keith, I just don’t love the little bastards anymore.’

So, let’s look at someone like Joan–who has dedicated her life to worthy goal–getting thousands upon thousands of kids to learn and grow.  Let’s just say she is ten years from retirement, and her job hasn’t gotten easier–it’s gotten harder.    She’s burnt out.

There are two scenarios for her situation now.  Scenario 1: she has lived her life as if she was going to have to depend on her salary until she retired at a normal age, which means she lived like most.  She bought as much house as the bank was willing to lend, and she’s furnished it to keep up with her academic friends.  She finances her cars to get to work,  She loves to travel and on her few weeks off during the summer, she loves to go to exotic places, as justifiable sabbatical and mental stimulation.  She usually charges the trips and pays them off throughout the year.

But now she’s stuck.  She’s servicing debt, and while she’s hovering on the line of living within her means, she handcuffed to the salary she’s built up over the past twenty years.   She either has to find a way to work through the burnout (maybe with another expensive trip next summer), or she has to cling on miserably until she can figure out what else to do.

On the other hand…[to be continued]

Next Post–Joan’s alternate scenario

Matt, About Your Job: It’s Not About You

"This mantra misleads on nearly every front," according to this Diversified Insurance blog post

OK, so here’s where I’m going to provide the possible alternatives for Matt, but I want to lay out one overriding principle that I’ve learned in my travels in and out of employment and finding the best route for my life, and that is:

It’s not about you.  It’s not about you, but it is about finding your calling.  Sometimes you and God might not agree, but one of the best ways to distract yourself from the idea of retirement is to try to figure out how you and God can get on the same page.

I want to be perfectly transparent in my belief that finding the best path in life is not always about Finding Your Bliss or indulging in immediate gratification for the perfect work life.   Let’s face it–life is full of struggles.  To get to where you should be, sacrifice is always the price you pay.

So this theme of unretirement is really more about opening your heart and mind to alternatives.  Alternatives that might take your mind off of the typical  self-centered marathon of a life to cross the finish line at 65 with blinders on.  There are other ways to live in which your focus can be on the present moment instead of a future one.

Matt is lucky because he’s so young and life’s door is wide open.  But being young is sometimes a disadvantage for finding your true calling.  Sometimes you have to be like the writer in Ecclesiastes, or like Dorothy in Oz, wandering around until you realize that you spent a lot of time and miles searching for something outside yourself, not knowing that the real answer was right there in your own heart.

Perhaps Matt could get a head start on his course in life if he does what Lisa Kelly advises in her Ignatian blog post, Connecting to the Source,  In examining his alternative in life, Matt might simply want to take some steps to connect with the Source that will put him on the path meant for him.  This path might be something Matt hasn’t even imagined. It might be confusing to Matt.  It might be difficult.  But somehow, Matt will feel pulled in that direction.

Here is Lisa’s advice for finding new habits of the heart, which might apply in Matt’s situation:

Get over yourself—whatever you are going to be called to, if it is a higher calling, it’s not going to be about you. It is going to be about and for others. You are going to be the tool. Connecting to God will require putting aside your wants, your desires, your biases, your plans. Are you ready for that?

Get outside yourself- Stop judging and start observing, observing, observing. Be aware of what is going on inside. Ignatius taught his companion to just name what was going on inside and let it be what it is rather than trying to stomp it out or avoid it. He suggested seeing situations from multiple points of view—others in the scene, open to what insights may come from any vantage point, knowing God is in all of them. We are seeking what we don’t know or can’t see rather than reaffirming what we already think.

Make some space and time for your mind and body-The first step of the Examen is to settle ourselves and be aware of the Presence. While some spiritualities make this space by retreating from the world, Ignatius saw it as most important to do while within the world. Get out in nature and let your senses be overwhelmed. Let the cares and worries and constant chatter of your mind fade away into awareness of nothing but the present moment. If we don’t stop talking to ourselves, how are we going to hear the Voice that we seek? Centering prayer, yoga, meditation all help people practice being in that space that makes connecting to the Source far more likely because the chatter is kept to a minimum.

Give it wings. Trust what you glimpsed. Do something (even if you don’t know where it is going to lead you.) Get over your fears—don’t let that Spirit Not of God, get in your way. Run with it. Try it—knowing full and well you still have a long way to go. Prayer must result in some action or change to be complete.

So, perhaps Matt might decide to stay in his marketing job.  If he does, and if he pursues this job mindfully, he might decide to ignore the social cues the prompt him to keep up with his colleagues’ status symbols.  He might make a decision to stay out of debt, because as soon as you borrow, you are no longer living in the moment.  You are no longer free to follow God’s call.  And he might perform his daily tasks, as simple as they may be, with an attitude of service.

Or he might start mentally and prayerfully exploring other options, following his heart even if it seems counterintuitive to who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he wants.  So many saints found their way by ignoring their self-perceptions.  As Evelyn Underhill stated in The Spiritual Life:

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles.  He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks.  St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops…St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his hermitage on the Farme, but he did not often get there.  St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius.  At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again.  Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted, for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called.  In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life.  Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement.

In out modern day, we have examples.  What do you think Albert Schweitzer‘s family thought when he gave up classical music to minister in deepest Africa?    What drove St. Theresa of Liseaux to inspire greatness with her spirituality of imperfection, with her Little Way?  What do you think Martin Luther King Jr.’s family thought when he took on leadership of the Civil Rights movement?   I really don’t see him sitting at Boston University saying to himself, “I think I’ll go home and put my family in danger and risk a nice life as pastor of a church and start a civil rights movement.”

So step one is to change our Habits of the Heart, as Lisa Kelly calls them.   Let Someone else do the coloring of our parachutes.

Challenging the Retirement Paradigm Case Study I: Matt, the Promising Marketing Manager

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
–The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

I’m not a financial expert and I’m not a life coach, so the way I’m going to answer the “yes buts” about the retirement paradigm that I said that I’d talk about in the last post is to let the real experts take the floor by providing a few links.

Over the next few posts I’ll discuss some hypothetical people marching toward retirement:

Matt is in his late 20s and has been entrenched in his job for a few years.  He had gone to college and changed his major a few times, but finally settled on Marketing, after trying classes in history and anthropology.  He loved his classes in anthropology and thought it would be great to go to places and uncover hidden secrets about man and society, but he wasn’t ready to rush into grad school, and he was sick of being a broke student.  So,  he shifted to a more practical major, upon his dad’s advice, and his personality and better-than-average grades won him an interview at a Fortune 500 company.   He and his parents were thrilled when he got a job offer after only three months of searching.  In this economy, he considered himself really lucky.

But, some realities of 9-5 came as a rude awakening to him the first year.  Not that he dislikes his job as an entry-level manager.   He really enjoys the camaraderie and the challenge at this job.  Plus he’s optimistic about his future.  His boss thinks he has a lot of promise, and has indicated that he could be promoted within the year.  Matt’s friend Ashley started a couple of years before him and she is already a vice president!  She recently got rid of her college car, a Ford Focus, and bought an entry-level Audi.

However, Matt sometimes finds it overwhelming because he knows he has to work 50-60 hours a week at his job to continue to impress his boss.  With those hours, and his 3-hour a day commuting time into the City, he’s pretty exhausted on the weekends.  The worst thing is, he feels that two–weeks vacation a year is pretty constraining.  He has to choose carefully how to use each day.  His college dreams of traveling to exotic places has been pushed to the back of his mind.   He doesn’t think about it most of the time, because the thought of having to wait decades to do those kinds of things is kind of depressing.

In the meantime, he hangs on out Thursday nights with his friends at trendy bars and joins a really great gym, spending some of his cash on a personal trainer.  Because of his commute, he’s thinking of leasing a Lexus SUV.  There’s a great deal going on–only $396/month for 24 months.

Matt might want to read:

Your Money or Your Life:  This classic by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin will be on the list for all my friends here, because it simply asks you to take a good hard look at your life and evaluate how you are spending your life energy.  Nothing is worse than not being true to your values, and YMOL (as it’s affectionately called by its fans) takes you through the consequences of spending mindlessly, and provides 9 steps to transform your relationship with money and achieving financial independence.  An updated edition was published in December 2008.

Chris Guillebeau’s blog/book:  The Art of Non-Conformity:  Before Joe’s Golden Handcuffs get locked on, he might want to prod the fires of his dreams of travel by reading alternative lifestyles, such as Chris’s.  Or, Tim Ferriss’s The 4-hour Workweek.   Or, My Exile Lifestyle by Colin Wright.  Reading books and blogs that show how other young people have shaped their lives might help challenge the paradigm Joe grew up with and soften his loving parents’ advice to work hard and get a good secure job.   After all, isn’t that what his dad and mom had done?   That was fine, but Chris and Tim and show Joe another way.  Joe’s boss said he is smart, a great communicator, and has great ideas, so Joe could easily be another Chris or Tim if he wanted to.

Poke the Box by Seth Godin.  Since Matt is a marketing guy, this book will come in handy for both work and life.  It asks you to shake things up.  Don’t accept what you see.  Have the courage to take initiative.

Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover:   Before Tim leases that Lexus he might want to read Dave’s book.   But since most people read TMMO as triage after financial damage has already been done, let’s leave Dave alone for a moment.

Matt needs to ask himself the following questions:

  • Why am I working at this job?  Do I really feel fulfilled, or did I grab it out of fear nothing better would come along?
  • Was I also listening to my heart when I took my parents’ advice, or was I leaving it behind?
  • Why am I coveting Ashley’s Audi?  What are my real reasons for wanting to lease an SUV?
  • If I never get around to traveling to cool places until I retire, how will I feel about that?
  • Am I following a path because it’s the path of least resistance?  Or because it’s the only path I’ve had a model for in my life?
  • Do I really need the perceived security of a “good future” at a corporate job?  Why?  Is “security” even real in the workplace?
  • If I really do like the challenges of my job, are there any ways that I use the same skills but modify the work schedule?
  • If I really do like the challenges of my job, how can I ensure that I don’t compensate for my hard work by spending hard-earned money on stuff I don’t really want or need?
Matt has two paths in the road in this particular scenario:  He can either continue on his path in marketing for a major corporation, or he can revisit his interest in travel and anthropology.   How will his thought of the future be changed for each one?  What are the possibilities for shifting the retirement paradigm for each pathway?

Next post:  Matt’s road(s) to the future

Give Us This Day Our Retirement Bread: The Retirement Paradigm Needs to Shift

There was a child who was watching the mother prepare a pot roast for their traditional Sunday family dinner.  The mother cut off the tips of the roast and put it into the pan.  The child asked, ‘Why did you cut off the tips of the roast?’ The mother replied, ‘That’s how my mother prepared it.  She’s in the other room–why don’t you go and ask her?’ The child then asked the grandmother, ‘How come when you prepare a roast you cut off the tips of the roast before you put it into the pan?’ The grandmother replied, ‘Well, that’s how my mother did it.  Why don’t you go ask her?’  So,  the child went to her great-grandmother and said, ‘I asked Mom and Grandma why they cut off the tips of the roast before they put it into the pan and they each told me to ask you.’  ‘Well,’ the great-grandmother said, ‘I don’t know why they are doing it…but I did it because the roast we bought was always a little too big to fit in the roasting pan I had.’

Conventional wisdom says that we should work at jobs until we arrive at some arbitrary age that was set at some irrelevant point in recent history and then stop working suddenly in order to spend the rest of our days taking water aerobics classes or chasing balls on golf courses.

This paradigm is about as relevant as the truncated pot roast in the story above.  I’ve recently been thinking about how every day I ask the Lord for my daily bread–not for the bread that I might need in 2025.   This raised a contradiction in my mind–in the most foundational prayer Christians pray, we simply ask for what we need today–not tomorrow.   But as a member of this Western culture, we have been raised with the belief that we are as foolish as the fabled grasshopper if we only live for today without stocking up big time for our Golden Years, perhaps at the expense of our happiness today.

So, I started investigating where the idea of “retirement” came from.  And as you might expect, I found that the concept and practice of “retirement” as a very recent phenomenon created for the convenience of employers during the Industrial Revolution.   We, as a species, have gone millions of years without needing a pension or a 401k–but whoa!  All of a sudden comes the 20th century and now hoarding for the future so that we can drop out of society at late mid-life is part of our mental DNA.

Does it make sense?

Not necessarily, but the culture has over the course of four or five generations adapted to the concept.  I found this entertaining, short history of retirement in the New York Times archives and there learned that it was not the retiree fighting for the right to drop out of the workforce back at the turn of the century:  it was drummed up by politicians, factory management, and even religious leaders (Cotton Mather for instance).  The retiree in many cases would have preferred to continue working.

I also found this website, The Next Hill, that was created for the sole purpose of debunking the retirement paradigm.  An interesting read.

So, I found I wasn’t alone in questioning the value of the practice of saving, saving, saving, hoarding, hoarding, hoarding in order to get to a point where you only hope you won’t outlive your money, because ten, twenty, thirty years of your life are going to be spent in leisure.

As with the pot roast story, usually changes in practices start out with good reason.  Back when modern day retirement began and became entrenched in our psyche a couple of things were going on.   We weren’t living much longer than the current retirement age, and there were economic dynamics at play such as the Great Depression and World War II which forced economic adaptation.    But as time has gone on, the consumer culture has raised the cost of living, and better healthcare has extended life, and now we are in a situation where our financial advisors are telling us we’re going to need at list a million dollars in our coffers if we want a decent quality of life.

But I propose that all that is smoke and mirrors.  Perhaps the more natural evolution into our golden years is to be productive as long as we can be, earning our daily bread as we go.

A lot of people are going to say, “Hey, retirement is my right!  I can’t wait to get out of this lousy job.   I want to retire as soon as I can. Are you proposing taking that right away from me?”

No, not at all.  But which is better:  to spend your life energy focused on a moment in time decades away, just to save up money so you no longer have to do precisely what you’re doing now?   Or would it be better to relax about the future, which will free up your life energy to focus on ways that you can live more fully now?

In my mind, the answer is obvious.

TLC has a series called “The Hoarders” which is quite sensationalistic in terms of showing people who have become obsessed and sick with the inability to let go of things.  Their possessions, both useful and useless, overtake their lives.  Do you suppose that if you think about those horrible images of hoarding (which we are so quick to judge.) and imagine that all that stuff–the garbage, the clothes, the clutter–is turned into dollar bills saved and hoarded for the future–do you get that same feeling of sadness for the one who is buried beneath?  Are we buried beneath our obsession with hoarding dollars for tomorrow at the expense of a free and uncluttered today?

In the next post, I’ll explore a few of the “yeah buts” as well a proposition from shifting our personal paradigms about retirement.

The illustration above was taken from The Next Hill, and the one at the left was taken from the blog Not Buying Anything.

Too many goals: Currency blowing in the wind

Well, well, well.  In spite of the fact that at the start of Lent I anticipated ramping up my blog entries, I actually wound up in freeze mode, and had the longest dry spell since I’ve started blogging.

What happened?   I think the answer actually lies something Dale Carnegie said about goal-setting:  While it is true that most people don’t succeed because they don’t have clearly defined goals, some people fail to make progress because they have too many.   So my analysis of this year’s Lenten goals:  I simply bit off more than I could chew and lacked the focus to follow through on any of them.

An analogy can be found in something that happened to me yesterday.  I went to CVS to go to the ATM machine.  I remembered I needed a small item, which was on sale for only 1.87.  So, I used one of the newly-ejected $20 bills from the ATM machine to pay, which left me with a ten dollar bill, a five, and three singles.

On my way out the door, I had the bag, a receipt, and my change.  As I was trying to put my change away, it slipped out of my hand, and all of a sudden, I saw the five bills fluttering in the wind and scuttering across the parking lot.  I lunged for the closest bill, which happened to be single.  Then it occurred to me–If some of these bills are going to be blowing away beyond my reach, I’d be better off just pursuing the ten dollar bill.  If the others blow away, it won’t be as great a loss.

As it turned out, I was able to retrieve all five bills.  But the moral of the story is, don’t go chasing down five things, when you’re best off just nailing the one that has the most value.  And that’s what I didn’t do during Lent.   Instead, I ran around chasing a bunch of goals and never succeeded in grabbing onto what was most important.

I’m kind of bummed that I lost that opportunity during Lent, because there is really something so exhilarating and empowering about setting a good worthwhile goal.    My favorite goal-setting experiences:

  • I had a clue that my employer, a large multinational corporation, was going to let me go during a series of lay-offs.  I happened to be pregnant.  Getting laid off at that point would have cut me off from the maternity leave pay that I had coming to me.  When I was conveying my fears about this to my mother, she said, “Well, what are you going to do?  You’ve never been much of a fighter.”  That was all she had to say to turn on the tiger inside me.  As a result, I successfully fought the impending lay-off and won my maternity leave.
  • When I earned a really valuable entry-level spot, jumping from a dead-end job, I was elated with the prospects of a brighter career, so I set a monetary goal that I thought was really aggressive.   I was making $42k at the first rung of that ladder, so I set a goal to double my income in 5 years.  I wound up quadrupling it in that amount of time.
  • Back around the time I graduated from college, my Colombian best friend invited me down to South America.   I had spent my high school years learning French.  So I decided to learn Spanish, at least as much as I could before I went to South America nine months later.  So, I got a self-study book, and at 3pm every day, I did one chapter.  No more, no less.  I continuously built upon lesson after lesson, winding up with a fairly passable traveler’s fluency in Spanish.

So, those three examples point to three elements of successful goal setting:

  1. Have passion for your goal.  As Anthony Robbins says in Awaken the Giant Within, in order to motivate yourself to achieve any goal, you have to stir up the power of your internal pain/pleasure drivers.  How you respond to those drivers will dictate your ability to get motivated and stay motivated.  In my mind, my mother unwittingly dared me, and touch a hot button–she in effect told me I’m a passive person, and I just had to prove her wrong.
  2. Have a measurable goal. Numbers are wonderful goal-setting aids.  Where some goals can be elusively rhetorical, numbers give you instant focus.   How many pounds do you want to lose?  In what amount of time?  How much money do you want to make?   Or you can use dates as goals:  “I want to get my MBA by the time I’m 31.”   Just imagine the banner across the finish line.  It can only say so much.  What does your banner say?
  3. Be consistent and persistent. You can’t exercise sporadically.  You can’t be really focused on eliminating debt on some days-and out at the malls on others.    It has to be something you think about every day.   Hey, you can stop thinking about your goal when you achieve it.  This isn’t a life sentence.  But the more you are committed to your goal on a daily basis, the faster you’re going to cross that finish line.

I have one more really important lesson about goal-setting.  And that is, goals are more likely to be met if they are grounded in a mindset of abundance, rather than a mindset of lack. For instance, how demotivating is it to be obsessed with what you don’t have while you’re trying to achieve what you want to have.  Turn your thoughts over from a mindset of lack into a mindset of abundance. If you have financial goals, don’t obsess over the debt you have.  Think instead about the money you do have, the income you can project, the natural ability you have to earn more money.  This is the horse you want to ride into battle.

If you have diet or exercise goals, what good is it to focus on how much weight you have to lose?  Or how clumsy you look in the pilates class compared with all the other more experienced exercisers?  Instead think about how beautiful you are now.  Stand up straight and decide to honor yourself by giving your bodily temple the care it deserves.  Rather than harboring thoughts like “I’m ugly now, but in the future I’ll be beautiful,”  realize the future now.  Believe you are beautiful  now.  Be prosperous in your mind now.  Your mental approach to a worthwhile goal isn’t to take you from lack to plenty.  It’s to simply manifest what is already there, hidden inside, ready to bloom, ready for you to simply snatch up as it surfs the wind.

Teeing it up: It all works out

tee-upMy son told a funny story at brunch at a lovely restaurant in the West Village the other day–it was so funny that we found ourselves being “shushed” from neighboring tables because we were laughing so hard.

The story is this:  Once upon a time Jim was really in a tough spot financially.  He wasn’t going to be able to make his rent.  He had no food.  He had no income on the horizon.  All he had were the hopes of winning a golf tournament that he was presently engaged in.   This was the kind of golf tournament that most people do for fun, but he was playing for a mission:  to win the prize money and pay his rent.  Others were joking around, drinking from the bar cart–Jim was laser-focused on one thing–winning that money.

After the banquet, they were giving out the prizes, and the first prize went to the person with the second lowest score.  He was the kind that participates in golf tournaments as a diversion–not because he, like Jim at that moment, had a driving need to pay bills.  No, au contraire, he was a golf philanthropist, and as such, when he was awarded the prize money, he walked up to the microphone and said, “I don’t want to forget who we are doing this for,” and he motioned towards the young disabled children lining the stage.  “Therefore, I want to give this back,” and he handed the envelope with the prize money to the M.C. amid applause and cheers of the audience.

“The next prize goes to the guy with the lowest score,” said the M.C., and he proceeded to announce my son’s name.  With that announcement, my son, Jim, saw a million worries flitting away… saw his short-term financial crisis being put to rest.  He imagined a worry-free night of sleep.  But when he got to the podium, and accepted the cash-filled envelope, a person’s voice from the crowd rang out:   “Give it back!!”  “Yeah!” said another.  “Give it back!”

There was my son, torn between his rent and a chorus line of needy kids, and the pressure of the previous winner’s generosity.  So he approached the mic, and, not for entirely altruistic reasons, buckled under the pressure and said, “I’d like to give this back to the kids.”

Whistles and cheers followed… But I’m not sure that at that moment they made up for the prospect of the looming late rent check in my son’s mind.   But it was done.

So, in telling this story, after we had been shushed and wiped the tears of laughter from our cheeks, my son said, “You know, it worked out.  It seems like when you think about the times when you didn’t think things are going to work out, no matter what it they may be, they really do in the end.”

I don’t know how Jim paid his rent that month.  But he’s still among us, laughing and sharing our company.

He’s up-to-date with this rent today.

A worthy organization is slightly better off.

It all works out.