The 99th Monkey

One man's spiritual quest—and his continuous and utter failure to find the answers.

Take My Money, Please!

The psychology of not-a-trust fund baby

I am not a trust fund baby, technically, because I’ve never been the beneficiary of a trust fund, although I’ve recently learned that some of my closest friends have always assumed that I am. I can certainly understand their misapprehension: I am a baby, and I have always trusted that I will have funds.

My Dad authored mathematics textbooks, which you wouldn’t exactly think was a goldmine, but the fact is, textbooks are often sold by the state. In other words, if California chose to adopt my father’s Algebra I book for their public schools, every 9th grader in the state would get one. And as you know, textbooks are notoriously expensive. Given that my Dad managed the super-human achievement of publishing over 60 math textbooks, ranging from the elementary grades to post-graduate levels, and given that most of them required brand new editions every two years, (usually to make socio-economic, politically-correct changes like altering the verbal problems from John and Mary traveling to and from Chicago to Juan and Maria playing in a mariachi band) the books allowed my Dad to accumulate a reasonably modest, non-extravagant nest-egg that he has always freely and generously shared with the kids, grandkids and various charitable causes. 

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(I actually had him as my teacher for Algebra I in 9th grade, and we used his book; I had the pleasure of seeing my own name in print, mowing the lawn in 1.5 times the amount of time in which my brother could do it. Dad also included my girlfriends in at least one verbal problem per book, and since I was a two-year, serial monogamist, those names kept conveniently changing with each new edition. By the time I met my wife, Shari, Dad had finally retired from writing and it looked like she wasn’t going to make the cut. In the final moments, however, his publisher requested one last revision and Shari got to “go to the store and buy $6.75 worth of groceries.”)

So I’ve always received just enough cash from the family math business to live a fairly frugal, hippie lifestyle, rarely paying more than $150/month in rent (until not too long ago), always buying used cars (until not too long ago), and generally trying to apologize to the world and my friends for not having to work by living cheaply and wearing the same jeans and tee shirts for several decades, and then only replacing them at K-Mart (until not too long ago, when I reluctantly upgraded to J.C. Penny.) I also tried to make it up to my less fortunate friends by remaining generally miserable in spite of my good financial karma, as if I were saying, “I may not be worried about money, but at least I’m unhappy all the time, so take some comfort in that.”

I always felt guilty and uncomfortable around those friends who were busting their butts to make ends meet, often failing to do so and being massively in debt, and several declaring bankruptcy. Occasionally, if I had the audacity to even hint that having money brings its own unique set of issues that have plagued me throughout my life, I would invariably get the expected response, “I wish I had your problems.”

What problems are those? The central one is having to continually ask myself who I am in this world, as a man, if I am not self-sufficient and supporting my family, but relying on my Dad? How do I creatively and productively use the extraordinary gift of time and freedom I’ve been given if I don’t have to work for a living? How do I create a meaningful life with no structure imposed from the outside? How much do I have to accomplish or give back of myself to pay off my debt, so that I don't feel as though I squandered such a gift? The answer to that last question has always been, never enough.

I never let myself off the hook, and feel a constant, enormous, self-imposed pressure from within to produce, and to justify my existence, and I punish myself mercilessly for every wasted minute, and trust me, there have been more minutes wasted than not. Especially if you compare me to Gandhi. (Or pretty much anybody, now that I think about it.)

Not Gandhi
Gandhi
Fortunately, this inner turmoil relaxes when I am engaged in activities that contribute something of value to others, whether it be leading workshops, sharing my writings and music, visiting my folks or preparing a plate of lettuce for Shari’s dinner. (She’s on what’s called an “elimination diet,” and she has pretty much eliminated everything except hearts of romaine and seltzer.)

It has been said that touching just one person’s life in a positive way might be all that is required of us; so I am very grateful that based on all the available evidence and feedback, it seems I have managed to make a positive difference in enough people’s lives that St. Peter will at least let me get on line; whether I’m allowed through the gate remains to be seen.

Buddhist teacher Christopher Titmuss once advised that my task was “to learn to feel about money the same way that you feel about your hand.” Meaning, having money is simply something that came along with being me this time around, like my hand, and I certainly don’t suffer angst about having a hand. (Although I actually did have a twinge of that when strolling among the armless lepers of India.)

All this to say that lately, with the economy the way it is, the class divide between “haves” and “have nots” has suddenly come very close to home in a way I’ve never known it before. I now have at least six or seven close personal friends who are nearly flat broke. One had their car repossessed; another didn’t have enough cash on hand to refill his gas tank; another is taking out the maximum cash advances from a few credit cards, transferring those funds to a partner’s name and then plans to cry uncle to the Visa police. When that money runs out, he has no Plan B apart from—he says, half-jokingly— “eating more cheese,” hoping his heart gives out before the money does.  

It’s eye opening and scary, and puts me in an even more uncomfortable position than before. If I learned one thing from my father, it was generosity, and I’ve often tried to emulate him and help my friends out, but since I didn’t earn the money myself, it feels like I’m being generous with my Dad’s money, not my own, and I’ve never been quite certain I have the right to do that.

And what happens if my dearest friends become homeless or hungry? What will I do then? Keep what’s “mine” or share it freely? Not to mention the countless multitudes who are already homeless and hungry, and sleeping on our streets with cardboard signs. Where’s Jesus when you need Him? "Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Makes me wonder if any of Mitt’s old friends could use a little spare change, or an extra summer house, and how he deals with it.)

In a way, many of us, everyday, are in an ongoing crisis of faith. In one way or another, we are each ultimately standing on the side of the road with a cardboard sign that says, “Help.”

Ram Dass once held a huge gathering on his father’s land in New Hampshire. His Dad was surprised to learn that the event was free, and calculated how much Ram Dass could have earned had he charged even ten bucks a head. Ram Dass responded by asking, “How much did you charge Uncle Henry for the legal work you did for him last year?” His father responded, “Nothing! Uncle Henry is family!” Ram Dass answered, “That’s my problem Dad; everyone here is family.”

And that’s a problem, more and more, that we are all going to share.

P.S. The real difference between me and a trust fund baby is that for those kids, presumably, the funds carry them from cradle to grave. For me, they carried me from cradle until about 5 years from now, when, in line with my habitual way of doing everything in reverse, I may actually need to start working when I turn 65. 

Eliezer Sobel is an author, musician, and retreat leader.

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