(Originally published in PULP)
It’s easy to turn a deaf ear to all the talk about “the economy,” at least until it hits you where it counts. Sure, we all notice when we have to pay more at the pump, or our health insurance costs jump for the 10th year in a row, but these are mere inconveniences compared to what some folks are dealing with.
I’ve been fortunate to work from home as a contract consultant to nonprofits for the past five-plus years. It allows me the flexible schedule I need to help out with the church, spend quality time with our kids and pursue my writing on the side. I’ve often carried more work during that time than we needed to get by, but my reasoning was that the work wouldn’t last forever.
Man, was I right.
This past summer, I lost all of my contracts in short succession. All of them said basically the same thing: it’s not about your work. We just have to cut back, and contractors are the first to go. Some were freaked out about city-county funding being cut, while others saw writing on the wall with their program-related contracts. One employer offered to keep me on part-time, provided that I move back to Texas to take the work.
Though things aren’t fully recovered for us, I’m grateful that a combination of side projects and a new part-time job with a graduate school in Tulsa have helped us keep the bills paid. We’ve undergone some fairly significant lifestyle adjustments, swallowed our pride and accepted help from family, and we have a plan to carry us at least through the holidays.
This whole experience, though, has caused me to reflect on a couple of things. First, though I’m not a fan of accepting help from anyone, it’s a blessing to have it available when we needed it. We realize that, no matter what happens, we’ll only fall so far. We won’t end up out on the street, and our kids will hardly know the difference.
I also am grateful to have a network of friends and professionals who have helped me dig up work from places I would have never found it by myself; I’m also thankful to have the opportunity to call people in positions of power and means to discuss ideas for employment.
Sure, I get work on my own merits, and I certainly wouldn’t keep it if I couldn’t perform. But this series of networks and safety nets is, without a doubt, the very definition of privilege. We Americans are fond of the idea that everyone, given a solid work ethic and enough ambition, can achieve anything. While there may be some anecdotal evidence to support this, it’s certainly a myth to suggest that this means that opportunity is an equally-distributed commodity.
It’s easy as a person of faith to fall back on guilt, and to assume that the “right” thing to do is deny myself those privileges that skew things in my favor. But, on reflection, I think the more just thing to do is both to recognize that privilege, and then to employ it to help raise others up whenever possible.
This may include giving what I can to charity, or returning the favor to those with less of a support system than I have. It might even be as simple as listening to others’ stories of hardship with a little more empathy and compassion. Most important, perhaps, is not to give myself too much credit for my own successes – or at least a minimalization of failures – and instead focus on gratitude.
The scaling back of our budget also has caused me to reflect on the difference between prosperity and abundance. Over the last three decades, organized religion has fallen over and again into the lucrative trap of preaching prosperity. All you have to do is turn on the television nearly any time of day, and you’re sure to find some preacher explaining to you why it is that Jesus wants you to be rich.
Funny, but I don’t recall Jesus or any of his followers racking up the bling. In fact, there’s more than one account of Jesus telling wealthy people that their prosperity could well be the stumbling block between them and a well-developed faith practice.
Jesus did, however, speak of abundance. Because of our consumer-centered worldview, we like to think that this is synonymous with “wealth.” But abundance is relatively independent of the physical world, and rather is a state of being. It is about believing that we have enough, here and now, rather than becoming willing slaves of want.
It’s ironic that having less has made me more grateful for what I do have. But sometimes it takes having the opportunity to stop and reflect forced upon you to gain a healthier perspective.
I go to bed at night with the peace of mind knowing there’s food on the shelves for breakfast, and that the heat will still be on when we wake up. I offer a quiet word of gratitude for the abundance in our lives, even in the face of slightly less material prosperity. I wonder what opportunities tomorrow may bring to pass that privilege and abundance along, and if I’ll have the compassion to act as I should.
Prosperity is often the perfect antidote to help us forget our hardship. Abundance, however, reminds us that there will be enough, especially if we’re willing to let a little bit go for someone else.