Potato Broke

Once again, a letter written to No Greater Joy Ministries piqued my interest:

Mrs. Pearl,

I am writing to ask your advice because, from what you have written, I know your husband is a lot like mine. My Love is very much both Visionary and Kingly, so he will come up with “let’s do this,” while his idea is totally foreign and too big to be practical; yet he’s Kingly, so “it’s the law now, so follow.” I want to follow his every dream, but I get so crushed when time after time it doesn’t pan out, thus causing real hardship on the family.

When I was a teen I loved and lived by your book Preparing to Be His Help Meet. And now your book Created to Be His Help Meet is really helping my marriage. I want to do this right, but it is easy to see “us” like those looking on must see “us.”

I know Satan often gives us only the “bad news” of those that think we are wrong in the way we are going, which they say is proven by our failure in business. Thankfully, Paul the apostle says to “rejoice then.” That means we are doing exactly what we need to do for the kingdom because Satan is warring against us and we are a problem for him!

Keep up the good work and I will try to figure out how to be the help meet my man needs.

God bless,

Faith

Faith writes that her husband comes up with harebrained schemes and expects her to follow them regardless of what she thinks of them, because he’s a selfish bully godly man and his word is law. The result, Faith writes, is “real hardship on the family” when, time and again, these schemes don’t work out.

In her letter, Faith says she is writing to Debi because she believes Debi will be able to understand what she is going through, because she thinks her husband is similar to Debi’s husband, Michael. And from what Faith writes here, I think she’s right. But it’s Michael—not Debi—who writes the response to Faith’s letter.

Michael Answers: 

Faith, your name is your answer. Have faith in your husband. Think of him as an inventor, failing 999 times in preparation for the great success he will eventually achieve. I have tried many endeavors which proved to be great only in my imagination. We have been poor to the bone and down to our last potato many times because I was devoting our money and all my energies and time to a new idea that was “wonderful.” Let me tell you a secret: I had fun at every step of the way. Failure didn’t discourage me. Like Thomas Edison, I knew I had just discovered one more way that did not work. I had grown.

What’s perhaps most interesting here is that Michael doesn’t appear to be able to get out of his own head and consider how others might feel as the result of his actions. He writes that his family has been “poor to the bone and down to our last potato many times,” not because he was unable to work or to find a job but rather “because I was devoting our money and all my energies and time to a new idea that was ‘wonderful.'” He then says eh will let Faith in on a “secret”: “I had fun at every step of the way,” he writes.

It wasn’t Michael who had to figure out how to stretch what little they had left to create a meal for their five hungry children—it was Debi. Perhaps Michael had fun engaging in voluntary poverty so that he could try out new projects and in general do whatever he wants to do, but what about Debi? What about his kids? This is selfishness in the extreme, but Michael can’t see it.

His response goes on:

But eventually I had great successes, like the time I went to an industrial auction with our recently acquired $400. I spent every dime and came home with two trailer loads of pulleys, belts, bearings, half a dozen pieces of machinery that I didn’t even know what they were used for, and hundreds of sanding belts, some of them three feet wide. And best of all, I had purchased for a steal over two-hundred feet of live conveyor belt that had to be removed from the facility in three days. I didn’t have any use for the conveyor and had no place to put it if I had disassembled it. But I had a glorious vision. I left the auction and went to the local newspaper to place an ad. The next day, after some dickering, I sold the conveyor where it sat for $800—twice what I had spent at the auction. My wife had grocery and rent money and I had a trailer load of beautiful equipment, some of which, believe it or not, I am still utilizing forty-three years later.

I then took one of the pieces of machinery apart and made an apparatus that would assist in the manufacturing of personalized redwood signs, which I sold in flea markets and malls and made about $20,000 over a three-year period. I used the bearings, pulleys, and belts to make a table belt-sander that would utilize the three-foot wide belts. With it I sanded the wood items I was selling in craft shows. I constructed several other pieces of equipment out of the goodies I had acquired, and with them I made between $40,000 and $50,000 each year for the next eleven years.

You should note that I took the $50,000 each year and tried another dozen “hair-brained ideas,” as my mother-in-law called them: some lost a lot of money, some broke even, and some multiplied my money. I can’t tell you how much fun it was—still is.

But I was able to build a house that sold for enough to allow us to purchase 100 acres in Middle Tennessee and get a start homesteading. Again we were potato broke from time to time, but it was our potatoes, dug with our own hands, and potatoes never tasted so good when served with a venison steak or fish caught in nearby waters, served with butter from our cow and milk warm from the bucket.

Look, buying things at auction to sell them individually is one thing, but doing so when you don’t have rent and grocery money is not exactly what most people would call responsible. And note that even when Michael was able to get this equipment to work for him, he took the $40,000 to $50,000 he made each year using it and put that money into “another dozen ‘hair-brained ideas’,” which from time to time again left them “potato broke.” And Michael’s takeaway? “I can’t tell you how much fun it was—still is.”

But wait. We’re not done.

Now my wife shares my hair-brained ideas, and we are a finely tuned team thinking of new ways to get the gospel to the whole world. Some ideas don’t work at all. Others break even. And some are seeing a harvest of thousands of souls brought into the Kingdom of God. By the way, it’s loads of fun. We have never been wealthy, or even middle class. In the past six years the Social Security Administration has paid me three times as much as I ever paid in.

My wife had to endure criticism from family and well-meaning friends, but it just brought us closer together. What other people think ceased to be relevant a long time ago. We became a team, experiencing life together, having more fun than a whole playground full of kids. In time, even my mother-in-law praised me. She discovered what I suspected all along: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1). We are laying up treasures in heaven and enjoying every minute of it.

Michael’s statement that Debi “now” shares in his harebrained ideas suggests that she didn’t always. Michael writes that Debi “had to endure criticism” for the way of living he thrust upon her, but claims that this “just brought us closer together.” I have to wonder, then, why she isn’t writing this response—she, after all, is the one Faith wanted to hear from, not Michael.

Next, note also that Michael states that in the last six years he’s received three times more money from the Social Security Agency than he ever paid in. I am left wondering whether Michael reported his income and paid taxes on it, or whether he skipped paying taxes altogether. I’m also baffled that Michael seems to see what many might see as grifting as a point of pride!

Actually, back that up—this isn’t how social security works. Your monthly payment is calculated based on income on which you paid social security taxes. There’s a formula. Given when they retired, the Pearls do stand to receive more than they paid in (see here), but not by much—and certainly not in six years! Michael is either committing social security fraud or he’s unaware of how much he paid in over the years.

And that is the end of Michael’s response.

Look, I have nothing against people starting their own businesses despite risk that they might go broke, or choosing to live with financial risk in order to pursue their interests rather than a paycheck. This is the kind of decision, however, that needs to be made together, as a couple. In addition, when there are children in the picture, these decisions should include an effort to make sure those children will have basic necessities like food and shelter, including fallback plans if things go south.

But we’re not talking about a couple voluntarily embracing a more freewheeling lifestyle. In both Debi’s and Faith’s cases, we’re talking about situations where the husband chooses such a lifestyle and mandates it for his wife. Remember, we’re talking about a patriarchal culture and belief system—and one that frowns on women working outside of the home, I might add, so it’s not as though these women can simply go out and get a job to make up for their husband’s lack of income if they want.

I grew up in this culture, with one big difference—my father took his role as provider very seriously. He and my mother believed that the wife’s job is to nurture the children and keep the home and the husband’s job is to protect and provide for the family, and provide my father did. My parents had a large family, and the number of children he was expected to support added stress to my father. And yet, he provided. The frequent evangelical emphasis on the husband as provider makes Michael’s views here feel out of place.

Oddly, in his book Created To Need a Help Meet, Michael once called a man who preferred following his dreams to providing for his family a “double-dog jerk.” He even told him to “get a job.” Perhaps the difference, here, is that Faith said that her husband reminded her of Debi’s husband—or in other words, of Michael himself. And Michael, regretting nothing of what he did (because he had fun while incidentally rendering his family “potato broke” multiple times), went into full “being like me is awesome” mode.

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