"Money is not the problem": What Friends Conceal. (Part 1)
How often do we successfully imagine "what it's like"?
This is the first post in my first series on how little we know about the secret corners of others lives: money, health, family dynamics, etc.
I’ll write them from a protracted viewpoint—centered on the realm of the personal and relational.
If I inform you that people usually assume others’ lives are pretty much like their own, you will probably say, “Duh.” Obvious. Boring.
But it’s the specifics that count. If others’ lives are very different from ours, what are we missing? How are my various friends and acquaintances tormented by money? Which ones are struggling to resist the siren-call of “more”? Which ones are racing to keep ahead of the threatening jaws of “not enough”? How much money is “a lot” to your neighbors and co-workers? How much money is “enough” to them, and what do they think will happen if they can’t get “a lot”? (or “enough”?!)
And that can get fascinating.
If you find out a friend’s relationship to money diverges wildly from your own experience… it can seem bizarre. Near the beginning of Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia,” a 5th-grade Jesse is gobsmacked when he discovers how enigmatic his friend Leslie’s situation is:
Leslie plunked herself down beside him on the bus... She talked about Arlington, about the huge suburban school she used to go to with its gorgeous music room but not a single teacher in it as beautiful or as nice as Miss Edmunds.
"You had a gym?"
"Yeah. I think all the schools did. Or most of them anyway." She sighed. "I really miss it. I'm pretty good at gymnastics."
"I guess you hate it here."
She was quiet for a moment, thinking, Jess decided, about her former school, which he saw as bright and new with a gleaming gymnasium larger than the one at the consolidated high school.
Jesse managed to switch gears quickly there—visions of much greater prosperity than he’s familiar with quickly leap into his mind.
"I guess you had a lot of friends there, too."
"Why'd you come here?"
"My parents are reassessing their value structure."
"They decided they were too hooked on money and success, so they bought that old farm and they're going to farm it and think about what's important."
Jess was staring at her with his mouth open. He knew it, and he couldn't help himself. It was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.
[He was]… trying to figure out why two grown people and a smart girl like Leslie wanted to leave a comfortable life in the suburbs for a place like this…
"You can't make a go of a farm nowadays, you know," he said finally. "My dad has to go to Washington to work, or we wouldn't have enough money.
"Money is not the problem."
"Sure it's the problem."
"I mean," she said stiffly, "not for us."
It took him a minute to catch on. He did not know people for whom money was not the problem. "Oh." He tried to remember not to talk about money with her after that.
I love this exchange, because of the way that the world that is natural and familiar to Leslie is completely foreign to Jesse. And the world of Jesse’s life is something she has not yet begun to fully imagine.
It’s like if there were two kids—one from the U.S. and one from Australia—and they argued about whether Christmas was in the winter or the summer. Nobody has questioned when Christmas comes: it is a law as immutable as the constellations in the sky! (which—by the way—are also different in the Northern vs. Southern Hemisphere!)
Actually, something like that happened to me when I was in Kindergarten. Another student and I had talked about how we both had “Easter birthdays.” When he told me that his was in a different month from mine, I quickly concluded that I must have mis-remembered mine! (Anything to escape a disagreement!) So I updated my belief about my own birthday—to the wrong month!
Consequently, when my mom asked to talk to me a few weeks later, she had a strange look on her face—maybe it was even a bit crestfallen. When she held my report card out to me, her voice rose as she queried, “Does not know own birthday?” However, the point is that we kids could only imagine holidays that fell on the same date each year: December 25th. October 31st. April 1st. (Unless the point is “How was my mom supposed to imagine what progression of events could lead to her daughter being graded as not knowing her own birthday?”)
Notice what happened in the story: Leslie is clueless; as she talks, the import of her words sink in. But then she lets slip a bit too much. Jesse determines to “shut himself off” from her on this one particular topic. (To him, it just seems like a practical choice, not a bitter decision.) Jesse and Leslie’s nascent friendship is more important. Also, since she’s a 5th grader, that level of cluelessness is pretty innocent!
The lives of Leslie and the life of Jesse are so wildly different that neither can imagine the other.
It’s like the way some people thought, “everyone can visualize things in their mind like I can,” while others thought “nobody really has visual imagination; they just use some other method of thinking and are using metaphor.” (The latter group assumed that when people said, “I see an apple in my mind” they really meant, “I’m thinking about things I know about the appearance of an apple.” And really who can blame them when “see” has been such a synonym for “comprehend”?) And people just went this way for a long time. Because people in each group simply assumed the other group Did. Not. Exist.
But back to where Jesse got stuck in his conversation with Leslie. He decides to clam up, and avoid mentioning the subject of money around her in the future. Now, we can say, “Isn’t that going to hinder the depth of his interactions with this friend?” Potentially. (But there’s a whole lot of topics in the world besides that to discuss.) Or we can say, “Well, his family’s financial problems aren’t something for him to be ashamed of, even if Leslie did know.” Sounds reasonable, but Jesse would disagree. (Now, don’t go arguing that Jesse’s a fictional character so how could I know! I know my fictional characters.) His predicament is not something we can simplify away.
Maybe sometimes the other person—the one in Leslie’s shoes—is not ready to have this bit of reality revealed. Or least not yet. We all have our limits. How might she react? By saying something unhelpful and clueless? Would Jesse be able to respond to such ignorance… helpfully? Or maybe she gets it, it hits her all at once, and she is a little freaked out, pitying the level of poverty and financial-insecurity his family copes with every week. Then, what do you do if you’re Jesse? Maybe backtrack. I think a lot of people would take the path of, “Well it’s not really that horrible. Not that it’s not horrible, but I don’t think it’s horrible in the way you’re thinking of!” I wonder what helps.
And help is needed, because it gets darker, oh, it gets darker… see “Hillbilly Elegy,” for example. (Would love to write about some things I found there. Another time.)
For now, I’ll settle for this:
There’s a whole lot that we can miss out on seeing. And there’s a lot that—even when we’re seeing—we may not understand.
Observation on writing from the experience of writing this post: I was having trouble finding the quote I wanted from “Bridge to Terabithia.” I realized that—even though I owned a hard copy of the book—I could check out an electronic copy from the library, for searchability! (My first instinct was to repeatedly use web searches, even though my memory of phrases is the passage was pretty faint. E-book better, done!)
Request for suggestions: Different possible title?