(This article is the second in a series. To read Part 1, Money as Play, click here.)
For the last month, I have experienced a lot of agitation and overwhelm in my being. At first I thought it was due to interpersonal issues in my life. Leaning into the first step of the Be Present Empowerment ModelⓇ, “Know yourself outside the distress of oppression,” I have been exploring what was happening in me. In the process, I realized that I am in a big shift.
So what happened this last month?
Now that I am indeed debt free, I see that I am entering a Jubilee year, a year of rest for me. Yet as I step into it, I am uncomfortable and full of agitation. At the surface it makes little sense. But in a conversation with my mentor, Pastor Jin S. Kim, it became clear that being debt-free means that for the first time, I will be able to live free of a constant “survival” and hustle mode driven by a fear of scarcity. My fastidious money management is no longer necessary. I don’t need to check into my digital budgeting account everyday. For the first time, I do not feel in crisis. My mind is not struggling to survive. I am free.
I understand my agitation and discomfort as an embodied transition of moving out of survival and scarcity mode into abundance and freedom; moving from the back of my brain to the front of my brain; moving from trauma response to presence.
For me—a young, white and female bodied professional, raised in a family of workaholics—this shift is anything but easy. You see, I am a great manager, and management is a frontal brain activity. But up until now, that manager’s boss has been my survival brain, my amygdala. As I shift out of the hustle of paying debt, my frontal brain is breaking free of a way of living that is rooted in survival mode. My old self, so competent at surviving in this particular way, is confused because I’m going beyond its script. Being indebted was a familiar circumstance, and as such, came with a level of emotional regulation, albeit unhealthy. I was accustomed to running on the hamster wheel of survival. When I got off, it was dysregulating.
Surviving or Living?
About 18 months ago, I became viscerally disgusted by my debt. It was abundantly clear that I needed to move that debt. At a practical financial level, I understood that this was “good” debt: it was all low or zero interest. One would argue that I could make more money by paying it off slowly and investing what I could. Conventional financial advice aside, I didn’t quite understand why I couldn’t just tolerate it, accept it, and pay it off bit by bit. My stubborn disgust did not make rational sense.
Today, I can see that my disgust was trying to move me out of survival mode. I was not disgusted with my debt. I was disgusted by a life of jumping from goal to goal, devoid of ease or a sense of abundance. Goal one: get into law school. Goal two: fund law school. Goal three: survive the pandemic and get through law school classes. Goal four: graduate from law school. Goal five: find a life partner, and marry, etc. You can see how it was going for me.
This approach to life–striving from one goal to the next–is a hallmark of what I call my whiteness. When I use this term, I am referring to the unconscious conditioning by a system, as well as cultural practices that consistently create and perpetuate advantages for white people and disadvantages for black, indigenous, and other people of color. This system and conditioning does not ultimately serve any of us regardless of the color of our skin. The endgame of whiteness is individualism and separation. As I am undergoing this shift in my life, the concept of whiteness is a useful one for me, because it helps me understand how I got here and also how I have developed a coping mechanism of jumping from goal to goal instead of being present to life as it is. Whiteness, as I experience it, celebrates achievement over wholeness; competence over presence; and specialization over relationships.
On their own, my goals are neutral and possibly even good. My constant striving and achievements are rewarded with an ego boost and praise in the culture at large. I get a sense of power, motivation and even purpose when I pursue them. And yet, the means toward these goals in this culture are often dehumanizing.
Take law school, for example. We are celebrated for getting through it, regardless of the toll it takes on our wellbeing or mental health. Upon graduating, those of us who choose corporate law jobs with 100-hour work weeks are rewarded the highest salaries. These paths require brute force to travel down. Applying such force to get through a 100-hour work week separates me from others and myself even if I get the “goal” I am after. I may have a very high salary, but I am poor in time and connection with myself and others.
My focus narrows to my own “survival” and getting through. There I am, alone and accomplished. I have hurt many people including myself with my own harshness, arrogance, and entitlement as I push forward towards my goals. I have alienated them with my “know it all” insecurities clamoring for survival in this society and culture. It is not the goals themselves that I am questioning, it’s the way in which I am oriented toward them.
I am not proud of this behavior and I have so much compassion for myself for it. I know how much of it is not my fault. I see how much of my conditioning came to be in my family system and as a result of the many socio-historical processes at play. And I want a different future for myself and all of creation.
I am working hard to move through this season of agitation. I have no script, and it feels quite muddy. The way I know how to manage my life–scheduling and proactive planning, assertive communication, competency, strict discipline–all of those trauma effects that make me successful in this culture–are not the way. I cannot manage my life into happiness or ease. I cannot use brute force to turn relationships into steadfast loving connection. Managing life instead of living makes no sense if I am not surviving, and even then it likely does not make sense either. It gets me nowhere…fast.
And… I am quite new to truly living. I have very few experiences of living in open and spacious trust of the Divine and community. It is a humbling place to be.
As I sit with my own limitations and my desire to grow, I can see a new horizon. As a white woman, this new horizon is more than welcome. Instead of pursuing personal achievements, I am longing to learn to live simply and well, trusting God, and yielding to the flow of Spirit in community. I no longer want to rely on my own understanding or competence. I am seeking to really settle in the security of God’s steadfast love for me, her graciousness and merciful nature, and in her protection. I want to be alive here on this earth with all of you. I want the present moment, all of you and this Earth to be the source of my regulation–not some goal or outcome as noble as those might be.
Malika Bouhdili, yes, Nadia’s brilliant sister, wrote this poem Earth-Water, and it so beautifully describes the hope I hold as I celebrate my very visceral growth into abundance; beyond my survival brain into my frontal brain.
by Malika Bouhdili
Below the creek
Is a concurrent creek
Its stream is not visible
It oozes through mud and mycelia
Several feet below the Sunny Places.
Dark Creek knows its way by feel
Not because there is “a way”
But because there are always natural openings.
Dark Creek picks up sediment and fluid
The Sunny Places reject
Not because it sees some-thing of value
But because acceptance is its nature.
Is not decided upon
It is just what happens
When the low places are what they are.
Below the melody
The harmonies sing.
This poem is my prayer for all of us who, like me, struggle between survival mode and truly living. I know with all of you it will be answered. Acceptance is nature. Fertile ground is not decided upon, it is what happens, when the conditions are right. Your steadfast love for me is the right conditions for me to make this shift. Our steadfast love for each other, in our circles, our monthly practice calls, our 1:1 spiritual companionship are the right conditions for us. May it be so.
Turning to you
In what ways do you engage with money in “survival mode”? How is that different from a more spacious and open way of relating to money in your life? Have you experienced dysregulation as a result of major personal shifts in perspective? How did you ride out change, and how was it? Please comment below!
*For a resource explaining some of how I understand whiteness and white supremacy culture, click here.