I gathered with a few friends from Common Fire West (www.CommonFire.org) yesterday for a conversation about financial transparency. Sharing our financial realities is a core practice for us and yesterday was the day.
Common Fire West is a group of people in the Bay Area who are attempting to create a diverse, intentional community/retreat center together. I have sat with this group for three years now, slowly getting to know the others in the group, listening for clarity about whether or not I am to be a part of the intentional community. I don’t know the answer to that yet.
In the meantime, I participate as I can. When the group set the focus of yesterday’s meeting as money, I offered to help facilitate the conversation. I suggested a few questions for reflection, set the tone for the conversation, and prepared my own numbers to share. That was the easy part. Those are things I do regularly at Harvest Time.
What I was not prepared for was what it would feel like to share my numbers in the context of a group where I was the wealthiest person.
For the past few years, I have practiced financial transparency in Harvest Time contexts, with friends who are wealthy like me. In those settings, I often am the person with the least money in the room when it comes to liquid assets and annual income. I gave away much of what I inherited twenty years ago. I hold onto about a year’s expenses as emergency reserves and have a similar amount in retirement accounts. That means that my family lives off of the salary I earn working for this non-profit and occasional gifts from my family.
On top of that, much of my daily life takes place in the context of Atherton, CA where my children go to school. In that Silicon Valley community, exceptional wealth is the norm. Living day to day in Atherton, my lifestyle of careful budgeting, shopping at thrift stores, and needing to consider the costs of going to the movie or eating out with my friends, I do not feel wealthy, even though I know intellectually that on a global scale I still am.
All that is to say that in my world of wealth, where I am surrounded by people who have more than I do, I don’t typically feel rich. Most days, I feel middle class.
But yesterday as we went around the room and person after person shared their numbers, I felt my uncomfortability rising as I became aware that I was the richest person in the room. As I listened to my friends’ realities, having a steady income that adequately provides for my housing, groceries, health care, retreats, clothing and even entertainment felt like an incredible luxury.
In addition, as I listened to how many people in our group have little or nothing in the way of savings, my savings of a year’s expenses felt like a HUGE amount of money.
It’s funny because most of the time that number feels very modest to me.
When it was my turn, I passed out copies of my monthly budget and wondered what the reaction would be. Would others judge me because I come from and still live in the world of wealth? Would they want me to contribute more than I do? Would they disconnect from me or project their anger at the injustice of the economic system onto me? My heart beat fast as I went through my numbers. I did not want to look up. I hurried to get through it, so the spotlight could shift.
When I did look up, the people I know as partners in this experiment in community were still there, listening. No one looked like they were judging me. No one even looked triggered. Instead, people commented that my way of working with occasional expenses through an escrow account was helpful. Others said they appreciated the way I laid out my budget and all the details I took into account. It was clear that the voices of fear and judgment were in me.
Yesterday, there was not time to fully open up the feelings I was having. To be honest, I was not even able to name in the moment that they were there.
But on my way home, I lingered with what was stirring inside. Something about knowing that my needs are met while friends struggle felt like an ache in my heart. In addition, I felt embarrassed to realize I had forgotten my own wealth.
I also felt a desire to push the feelings away by turning to answers I already have. I know that I am not to fix everything, for instance. I know that my work is stand squarely inside my life and discern the choices that are mine. But there was something about staying with the uncomfortablity that felt important. It felt like God was moving right there.
The Common Fire West community is committed to staying connected by heart amidst diversity and working together to create alternative ways of living that ensure that everyone has enough. We have a practice,the Be Present Empowerment Model (www.BePresent.org), that helps us to work with what comes up when we sit with our differences.
Next time we meet, I know I need to bring my feelings back to the group. I need to sit a bit longer at my uncomfortable edge. Somewhere in there, I believe, is the door to being free – for me. And somewhere in there, I believe, is the key to building the community we seek.