Friday, June 01, 2012

First World Problems

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Right after we lost our house and moved to Woods Cross a few years ago, I wrote a number of really miserable posts. Most of them I never published.  They were too dreary, too angry, too everything.  I kept writing those posts and then deleting them, or putting them back in drafts.  Exhibit A:

I don't want to talk about where we are because I hate it.  I hate where we are, I hate our current situation, I hate that nothing worked out the way we planned and worked for.  I know it does me no good at all to dwell on it.
So I will not sit here and describe Woods Cross to you.  It is like any other place you don't want to be - none of the good things about it can make up for all of the resentment you feel about being where you are. 
People ask how I'm doing, and I always tell them I'm fine. I've been moping, but its been a busy kind of moping.   I'm feeling very Marilla Cuthbertish these days - the picture of grim faced endurance and practicality.  This is a situation that calls for putting one foot in front of the other.  This is a situation that calls for just getting on with it until I can feel cheerful again. This is not a situation that calls for self-indulgent analysis of "how I feel" about things. 
How do I feel? 
I feel crappy about it. But sitting around thinking about it does me no good. I can sit and wallow in it or I can move forward.  I think I choose moving forward, even though I'm not all that thrilled about where we're starting from. 

I am trying not to wallow.  Instead I am just a blank.  I feel like a character in a Wallace Stegner novel, grimly living out futile predestined patterns of certain economic doom and personal failure. 
And if anyone tries to tell me to look on the bright side I will punch them in the face.

I felt like we couldn't catch a break. That every time we tried to pick ourselves up, we got knocked back down again.  I felt like the world was an unjust place.

(I will stop and say right here that yes, I understand that these were first world problems. We were not living in a shack, we were all safe, we were still immensely privileged.  But that is not how I felt. It is hard to have perspective when you feel like you are losing everything, even when you continually remind yourself to have a little perspective.  Gratitude journals only take you so far.  That's just human nature, and I was very human.  See how that works?)

The hardest thing I ever had to do was to walk into the Bishop's Storehouse a few weeks before we moved out of our house in Highland.  (If you don't know what that is, see here.  It's like a food bank for Mormons.) We had no food left in the cupboards.  I don't think any of my friends had a clue about that, because I didn't tell anyone.  I took my shopping cart around and picked out free produce and canned food, and cried the whole time - feeling both grateful for the food and ashamed and embarrassed that I was in that situation.

Things were pretty bleak.

At the time I closed myself off from everyone around me and irrationally resented all of the people who didn't have to deal with what we were dealing with. "You think your life is hard?"  That was my super pleasant personal motto.

A lot of people emailed me who were going through the same thing, and by and large I just could not answer those emails.  It was too hard.  I had no advice to give, I could barely advise myself.

But I understood it.  I got the anger, I got the pain.  I got the feelings of "how did we get here" and "how is this my life"?

What it is so hard to see when you are in the middle of it is that this isn't actually your life.  This is a small part of it.  It is something to get through.  It is something you can get through.

Maybe you won't ever be restored to your former financial place in the world, I'm not saying that.  Life really isn't economically fair, that's just a fact.  You do your best to work hard and make smarter choices and sometimes it works out.  Sometimes it doesn't.

I don't think the reward for righteously working through your "trials" is financial "blessings".  I think that's a crock.   I say this because I know plenty of Mormons who think that if they do all of the right things, God will bless them with a financial house of order.  I don't think it works that way.  I don't think God blesses righteous people financially unless everyone in the third world is an unrighteous piece of crap. What does it mean to God if I have to live in a crappy rental instead of a McMansion?  What does it mean to God if we had to shop at thrift stores for a while instead of at the Gap? What does it mean to God if I have to humble myself to bring home a cart full of free groceries instead of whipping out my debit card?

Nothing.  It means nothing.

Frankly, I don't think that God cares about my financial well-being at all, which isn't to say that He doesn't care about me.  He just doesn't value upper middle class financial stability.  The reward for being a good person is not having free reign at Nordstroms.

If He cares about anything, He cares about how I respond to my situation.  He cares about what I learn from it.  He doesn't care about what level of privilege I think I deserve based on how hard I work. He cares about how I let it shape me.

And the thing is, this doesn't define you, unless you let it.  It may not feel like it at the time, but you do have choices. You get to choose how much you let it seep into your soul.  You get to choose what lessons you want to let your actions teach your kids about how much you really value money, Sunday School platitudes aside.  You get to choose whether or not you want to try to gain a little perspective. You get to choose exactly how bitter you are going to be at the end of the day. You get to choose if you are going to hurt yourself by holding on to your ideas about what is fair.

You get to choose.

It doesn't have to destroy your marriage either, although it can.  It can make things really hard for a while.  You may not even realize what toll the constant stress is taking on your marriage. Who else are you going to take it out on, but each other?  Nobody else is there in the trenches with you. The person you should be leaning on the most may be the person you use most of your remaining strength to push away.  It is hard to get through it unscathed.  Be careful.  Be so, so careful.

I guess all I really want to say to all of those people who emailed me is - hang in there.  Life is not a tunnel with no light at the end of it, even if this moment, or this day, or this week, or this month, or this year feels like it.

Life will not always be so grim.  Try not to lose your sense of humor.  Try not to lose your sense of joy.  Try not to lose yourself.

After all, you've lost enough already, haven't you?

PS: You can read more about our financial meltdown and recovery here.  Hope it helps.


  1. Oh, Sue. I love this. We've been through the ringer when it comes to finances as well. My husband has now been unemployed after a lay off for...almost 3 years. We ended up sending him back to school. So here we are, in our 30's, still trudging along. Students again. With three kids.

    But, I so agree with you. This life is not about financial stability. And, if it takes poverty to teach me the lessons of life, I'm sure that is where we'll be. I'm thinking of you, Sue. You're amazing.

  2. The last couple of years have been horrendous for us financially but we have been blessed with the most amazing health. Neither us nor or children have needed to go to the doctor for years.

    My husband is always saying, "I'm tired that our only blessing is not having sick kids". But health is the one thing that money can't really buy. So he's an idiot and I thank God every day for the blessings we do have.

  3. Your post described me exactly as I was 30 years ago. It is not me now nor has it been for a long time, but I was there and you expressed what I felt but never told anyone. I've only recently even told my husband that I had actually considered suicide (and , shudder, take my kids with me) at that time because I could see no other way out of that hell. Now I have a bunch of grandkids and I've never been so content with my life, my husband, my kids and even my financial place in life. But 30 years ago you would never have convinced me that I would be happy again. So glad I stuck it out and so horrified that I could have denied my children the happiness that they have. Part of me is even proud that I went though it and survived. It's like I KNOW that bad things happen but I KNOW I can get through it (even losing people I love - I will hate going through it but I will survive!)

  4. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Anonymous for a reason. Right now I'm in the tunnel. I am going to take your word for it that there is a light at the end of it. This is not the life I thought we would have. I am probably going to have to go see the bishop soon. I used to be the one writing out the food orders and now I'm going to have to use one. It is humiliating even though I didn't judge those who needed help. I am not supposed to need help.

    I wish you were able to write more about how you dealt with it in your marriage. I think my husband and I are on the fast track to a divorce. We are both angry and take it out on each other. There is such a sense of failure. Sometimes I think about leaving him but realize it is more about wanting to leave my problems behind.

  5. This is a brilliant post and I'm slathering it all over my FB page for some friends in a similar position to yours.

  6. Anonymous11:20 AM

    I agree - you don't talk about your marriage very much, and the fact that you are still married is a testament that, whether you believe it or not, you could teach a lot of people through your example.

  7. As usual, I don't know what is more amazing here - your post or the comments. This is applicable to so many hard life situations, not just financial setbacks.

    We get to choose.

  8. You probably don't feel wise, you probably just feel like "Sue", but you are, my friend. This post is all kinds of wise and insightful and encouraging. I especially love your thoughts about our Heavenly Father, because they ring so, so true.

    In fact, the people in our branch who are the most spiritual, who live the gospel in an exemplary fashion, are dirt poor and living in a trailer. And they tell people how blessed they are constantly.

  9. Oh, you say it all so well! And I am right there with you looking bug eyed at those who think their prosperity is due to their righteousness. It's the result of their choices and plain dumb luck. It takes someone who has gone through what you hae (and *I* have) to lose that erroneous perspective b/c most moms and dads teach their little kids that good things happen to people who are good. It takes a child to reverse that in their minds and to believe that if something bad happens, it must mean that person was bad or made bad choices. This issue is going to get bigger and uglier and harder b/c adversity is going to be the name of the game from here on out. Those who see it like you do are the ones who are going to survive it.

  10. This is awesome.

  11. Anonymous12:13 PM

    This kills me. I am going through something similar. I know I am not supposed to care about material things but I do. Why do we have to put a happy face on everything. It frustrates me.

    I hate that I have to work. I hate that my baby is in daycare. How do you deal with that guilt? I used to be one of those women who listened to Dr. Laura. I thought I had it all figured out. I was so smug and stupid.

    I think I'm becoming a bitter person. I don't know how to get away from it. I wake up angry and upset.

    Sure we're healthy but so are my friend's kids, and she still has her house. I don't see how that trumps everything. I hate it when people say that because it makes me feel small. I guess I am small.

  12. "He cares about how I respond to my situation." I think that is exactly what this life is about. Can we handle wealth and good fortune without become prideful and selfish? How do we deal with the results of calamities, deprivations, tragedies, the disappointments and losses that life brings and the choices that we and other people make? If we do our best to hang on and work through the hard times without turning to evil remedies, and we are eager to help others through their hard times, He will strengthen us so we can endure and find solutions and opportunities that will eventually bring us peace. "Endure to the end" is a warning that life isn't going to be an easy path.

  13. What it is so hard to see when you are in the middle of it is that this isn't actually your life. This is a small part of it."
    I learned this a couple years ago in the middle of a suicidal moment. "If I will just wait until tomorrow morning, I will feel differently. Just... get... to... bed..."

    As a result, I am one of those annoying people who reminds friends that what they are going through is not their life, only a sliver of it. Sure, they may want to punch me in the face; I don't care. If I am the only one reminding them to move forward and move through, I will gladly be that target of anger for them. I will not be quiet and later regret not having said or done all I could.

    "Life really isn't economically fair, that's just a fact. You do your best to work hard and make smarter choices and sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't.
    I will disagree on this one. It's probably just a matter or semantics.

    "And the thing is, this doesn't define you, unless you let it."
    THIS IS EXACTLY TRUE. The only purpose of Opposition is to trick a person into believing they are their situation.

  14. Karla4:08 PM

    Loved this post. Thank you!

  15. Sue, what I appreciate the most is how you mentioned that despite knowing your problems were first world, they were still real. I believe it's important to recognize how much we have but it's also important to talk openly about how these "blessings" don't mean happiness.

    Financially, we make more now than we have our entire marriage (because we've been students for so long) but we have bills and two rents and student loans and and and that keep things very tight. We moved into an apartment that is less than half the size of our old place and is on the third floor (because we saved money that way). My husband and I really don't like it and will never consider it "home."

    Recently I was having a conversation with someone about my current situation. What I liked is that neither of us used platitudes (you'll get through this! But think of all your blessings!), instead we discussed how difficult it is but how much I know I will learn through the experience.

    Even though I no longer believe in the traditional God, I do believe that life is full of opposition. We all must choose between love and selfishness, happiness and misery. Situations that are hard will make us stronger, but that doesn't make it easier to get through them. So I, like you, am actively doing things to make the best of this crappy situation but am also looking forward to the future.

    I believe the most important thing I am learning in my situation is compassion for others. When people talk of their problems, I listen and sympathize (or empathize depending on the situation) and let them feel. Regardless of how silly we might consider our feelings, they are still valid and we shouldn't have to hide them.

    And now I'm rambling.

  16. Love your perspective - After going through the death of my only daughter, I grieved hard of course, but eventually realized that I didn't want to be defined by her death. Whenever I go through something difficult I want to come out on the other side a better person, never a more bitter one.

  17. Oh, I loved this. The past decade brought an attempt on my life, divorce, terror at figuring out how to raise all those little kids, poverty, alienation from family, job losses (yes, plural), more moves than anyone should have to make, and a few trips through that bishop's storehouse. I hit rock bottom so many times I felt like a yo-yo. On the other side of the tunnel (not in all ways, but many) I can say, it really does get better.

    For instance, I was talking with #2 who is 18 and leaving home for summer work, and he said that because of our experience he is almost afraid of nothing. He needs almost nothing from life to be happy. God has eliminated much of his risk-aversion. My kids have never complained and we've always been happy and I think they know how to be happy because of it. They value food storage and they know how to both give and receive. And we need almost nothing to be perfect to be happy.

    The other side of the tunnel can be a very good place if we determine not to let it let us out in a swamp.

  18. Good heavens, we're you trying to make me cry? Mission accomplished. After 10 years it feels very much like there is no light at the end. I was really starting to feel okay about my crappy apartment, knowing that $600 a month is too good to pass up right now...and then I came to visit DRAPER of all places. Suck city.

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  20. Thanks for helping me understand something that I've only been witnessing from the outside. We lived this more than once when I was growing up thanks to a crushing avalanche of medical bills that never let up, but with the added perspective of parenthood and marriage, this has helped to mine some empathy from my sympathy and I appreciate you for it.

  21. Anonymous12:06 PM

    You are cool.

    - swizzly

  22. Love the honesty and the self-realization. Some things are not real until we live them. then after the dust settles a bit we can see what we may have learned.

  23. I love this post so much I want to marry it.

  24. Anonymous8:55 AM

    beautiful post — well done.