IT WAS A WARM MAY night in 1977. I was 19 years old and the manager of a fast-food restaurant. I was also in the middle of a five-year addiction to compulsive gambling that would eventually lead me to the brink of spiritual and financial bankruptcy. It was about 10:30 p.m. and I was cleaning up the store after closing. I was planning on going to the racetrack to catch the last race when I was done.
I was emptying the soft drink system when I turned around and saw two men in ski masks pointing guns at me. I burst out laughing—I thought it was a joke. When they ordered me to get down on the floor and crawl over to the safe, I knew they were deadly serious.
One of the men ordered me to empty the safe and put all the money in his bag. As I nervously loaded hundreds of dollars in coins into the bag, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a paper cup sitting on my desk stuffed with about $400 in cash. The thought popped into my head that maybe he wouldn’t notice it and I could take it with me to the racetrack that night.
After I cleaned out the safe, he asked me, “Is that all the money?”
As I tried not to look at the money on the desk, I replied, “Yeah, that’s all the money.”
He put the gun to my head and said again, “Is that all the money?”
I stuttered, “Uh, there’s some more up there on the desk.”
Maybe his gun wasn’t loaded or maybe he was too nervous to realize that I had tried to pull something over on him. Instead of shooting me, he and his partner tied me up and ran off into the night. I didn’t make it to the racetrack that night. I didn’t realize until many years later, after I quit gambling, how close I came to losing my life over my perverted sense of money.
Hopefully, you haven’t faced such an experience when it comes to choosing your money or your life. But I know that all of us make choices about our money and our life. These choices may not be forced upon us by the cold steel of a gun, but they are forced on us every day. Our choices range from deciding how to live on what we make to deciding how much time to spend earning a living versus being with family and friends. Some of us struggle with deciding how long to stay at jobs that provide us with economic security but leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled.
Some of us are simply looking for a job—any job. Many of us wonder how we can help those less fortunate as we struggle with deciding how much is enough. Whatever choices we are faced with, the question of our money or our life is never far away.
Most of the financial advice we read focuses on how to manage our money and how to do our best to have enough. This is important and I would be in a much less privileged place if I hadn’t availed myself of such advice. But too often, there’s silence from the experts, and among ourselves and those closest to us, about the grip money might have on our psyches and souls.
Jacob Needleman writes in his book Money and the Meaning of Life, “The problem of money dogs our steps throughout the whole of our lives…. And it haunts our spiritual search as well.” So it does. Needleman believes that exploring and healing our relationship with money provides us our greatest opportunity for learning how to live a rich and satisfying life. I agree with him. But how do we do that?
I’ve begun to understand that, above all else, money is a story—a myth—that I’ve learned from others and continue to create myself. Reflecting on our stories about money is an important step in building a peaceful relationship with money. What lessons did we learn as children about money? Are those lessons relevant for how we wish to live today? These are questions we would all be wise to reflect on—hopefully with others.
My story was greatly influenced by being raised in a single-parent household where money was sometimes scarce. My mom was so busy working to keep our family together and worrying if we had enough money that she didn’t have time for the spiritual side of life. I’ve struggled with creating a story of money that balances security with the spiritual, with having enough for my family and to share with others. Like most myths, there’s both truth and fantasy in our money stories. One of our challenges is to discover which parts of our money stories no longer work for us.
When I became a minister, I learned that money—perhaps not too surprisingly—has its roots in religion. The word “money” is named after the Roman Goddess of Warning, Juno Moneta, whose temple housed the very first mint. What a wonderful metaphor for money, the fact that it’s named after the Goddess of Warning and the first mint. Perhaps, in addition to “In God We Trust,” every dollar bill should come with the phrase, “Warning: This Can Be Dangerous to Your Spiritual Well-Being”.
All the world’s religions share stories and wisdom about money. But some of these stories and this wisdom force us into a false dualism that chooses the material or the spiritual. Knowingly or not, financial advisors and experts often do the same. This can force us to choose our money or our life.
My 19-year-old self couldn’t have imagined the life that would unfold in front of him: overcoming addiction. Coping with financial and emotional bankruptcy. Learning how to savor life and money while endeavoring to help others do the same. We shouldn’t wait for a gun to be pointed at us—or for hard times—to reflect on the role we want money to have in our material and spiritual life. Instead, we should think about it now—and strive to choose both our money and our life.
Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead. Follow Don on Twitter @Calltrepreneur and check out his earlier articles.