There’s this scene called “Dad paying the bills” that we all know. (Yours might be called “Mom,” or “Grandpa,” but it’s quite similar.) In this scene, you have a note from your teacher at school that explains how you have screwed up, and Mom tells you, “Oh, not now. Dad’s paying the bills.” What does this mean? Dad is sitting at a desk he doesn’t normally sit at, and there are papers spread around. My scene has a buzzing and spitting adding machine. Should you interrupt Dad with your note from Teacher? Dad grumbles. Dad sighs. What is wrong with Dad?
Now I am my own Dad, so to speak, and I’m amazed by how nervous and ashamed I can feel about paying bills. Especially in the last year or so, I read stories about people losing their jobs, eating through their savings, losing their houses, their health insurance, needing soup kitchen meals or utility assistance. These scary stories make me more ashamed: how can I even stress about money when I am so comfortable, in comparison?
Shame isn’t like that, though. Shame doesn’t listen to reason or gratitude.
Money is a great target for shame, especially for Americans. In the U.S., capitalism and up-by-bootstraps mythology put money front and center in our idea of success. You can be thrifty and “good with money,” or a bold investor, or a financial climber, or a dutiful saver. I am sometimes thrifty, occasionally good with money, and pretty hopeless at the rest.
Paying bills is a great spiritual opportunity. Great spiritual opportunities are things that terrify you, hurt like hell while they are happening, and then scar you in ways that might or might not be attractive. I try to tell myself, before I go to pay the bills, that whatever happens at the desk, it is not a test of whether or not I am a good person. Finally, I sort of go into a tape loop about what does make you a good person, which Christianity tells me is not the point, and Buddhism tells me is crazy. (Hitler was good with money, right?)
I sat at the breakfast table today and looked at all the bills and fretted over some of them. Barked at myself for how something had been handled. Why had you not…? Why did you…? How did this…? My perfectionist voice says, If you were really good, you could save all your money and live like one of those air plants. Why don’t we try eating ramen noodles for every meal? We could pay off these student loans lickety-split!
You’re not supposed to talk about money, except to say that you have plenty, and that you manage it just fine. I don’t usually explain that I’m not going out, or ordering a glass of wine, because my monthly fun-money allowance is spent. You’re not supposed to talk about that.
I read a piece of Pema Chodron’s before I got the checkbook. The gist of it was: be honest and non-judgmental. Be honest about your money and what you really do with it (or don’t), and being non-judgmental with yourself (so that’s what I did, huh). It’s a tall order. I’m going to practice it, again, possibly after my next paycheck, or whenever I get around to it.