This question could change EVERYTHING. What is wealth to you?
Is it money in the bank? Gold in a coffee can in the backyard? As Al Diaz says “it’s probably different than what you’ve been told.” What is Wealth to You? by Al Diaz.
Thankfully I was asked this question several years ago and took the time to answer it for myself; which created more questions, so I answered those, and thus began a deep dive into my values, ethics, morals, and belief systems. Why do I believe what I believe? Where did that belief come from? How can I have beliefs that I don’t know about? How do they “make me” do things that I don’t want to do? How can believing change anything? And if beliefs can change, then who am I really?What shaped me? What shaped my parents that I turned out the way that I did? What shaped them? What shapes anybody?
This was the BEST line of inquiry I have ever pursued. Why? Because I discovered that I can change; I am not a prisoner to my past. I can choose beliefs that move me forward to where I WANT to go, instead of reacting and pushing things away – it’s magical. And so are you! I now believe that shifting our individual understanding of “wealth” (a do it yourself project) will collectively begin to shift our global understanding of “wealth” and we will start sharing instead of hoarding.
This is why I am sharing my stories. Maybe they will nudge something in you, a remembering or a flash of insight. Why stories? Because storytelling is “a potent way to convey nuanced information” as Leonard & Swap (2005) said in Deep Smarts, an article in the Harvard Business Review. It’s not just me who thinks so 🙂
Here’s part of my story, the part that was shaping how I saw wealth and money.
I was born in Scotland; picture the “thrifty Scot” stereotype, add in a double whammy of having parents who both lost their mother’s early in life; albeit in very different ways, stir in immigrating to Canada, add a vivid imagination and genetic predisposition to depression, and you get me; Ailie N. (for Neilson) Kerr. I got mail once; for Ailien … when I found out what it meant, it fit EXACTLY with how I felt. Foreign, out of this world, strange … like I would never fit in. So where did that come from? My parent’s stories begin to cast some light into the darkness.
Mom’s mother died when she was 10. It was 1949, they didn’t talk about “those things;” they just got on with it. That left three pre-teen children with my mom in the middle – oldest girl so did the “mommy stuff.” Their father was a bank messenger and they lived in the apartment above the bank in the centre of Edinburgh. He died 10 years later. The siblings became really tight and helped each other through it. They’ve remained close, even when living on three different continents.
My dad’s story is much different. His family lived in Peebles, a small village south of Edinburgh. His grandfather was owner and editor of the local newspaper and well respected. When he died, his brother inherited it, spent all the money and then died in a horseback riding accident in Hawaii – which was quite the village story for early 1900 Scotland. The paper was sold and the family struggled. My dad’s father was hired to run the paper as editor … quite the smack down for the family pride. He worked hard and often. Maybe that had something to do with his wife becoming an alcoholic … or as dad says “the town drunk” … out “screeching in the street” … in my mind, my dad “lost” his mom as a very young boy – except she didn’t die which was probably worse. Dad was the youngest of three boys … by the sounds of things he was a bright and sensitive child; not good traits for a boy in a rough household in the 1930’s. He. Couldn’t. Wait. To. GET. OUT.
By sheer force of will, he got out. He managed to get a scholarship and did four years of art college; he nearly got another scholarship to go to Italy to study painting – his life’s wish – but there were “so many” excellent artists that year, way more than usual, his “shoo-in” was aborted. So he became a teacher, an art teacher. Another plummet in his mind. He made the most of it though, eventually moving to Canada with his young family.
It took me years to find this all out; remember we “didn’t talk about those things.” I had to ask questions and dig a bit. But what a relief to get an understanding of what shaped my parents, so I can see how they shaped me. I understand now, in a deeper way, that everyone is just doing the best they can in their circumstances. Sometimes life hurts so bad you shut down, or you’re so used to feeling hurt that you don’t realize that you’re not really living.
Money was also something we did not talk about. I honestly did not know that there were utility bills until I sublet an apartment when I was 18. Bills were paid privately, it was all hush hush. Dad worked as a high school art teacher and couldn’t stand the kids behaviours – you were allowed to strap kids in Scotland. He still insists that giving one kid a strapping in the first week of class would solve all the discipline problems today. He worked because he had to, leaving a job you didn’t like wasn’t an option. Period. Mom stayed at home; she would put us on an “austerity budget” … meaning she’d stretch the grocery money by making soup to save enough to go back to Scotland to see her sister. Then she became involved in municipal politics as a school trustee and then alderman and got an allowance, her own money – she bought us a colour television AND cable vision!!
Life changed after that, a lot; they divorced when I was 17, right before I graduated from high school. Mom took my younger sister with her, my brother and I stayed at the house with Dad. I got a job in admitting at the local hospital – a neighbour offered the job to my mom to help her out as a newly single mother, but she couldn’t type, and I could. It was a union job and $7.69/hr – BIG money in 1980! I took my friends out for dinner and a movie, it was thrilling!
Dad was away the first summer; after mom and my sister left. He was working on a Master’s of Education – focused on philosophy and comparative religion. Then he had such an epiphany about life and living; his whole belief system shifted in a moment … and it did not match his reality. He ended up involuntarily committed in a psychiatric hospital in the US. He ended up back in Kamloops – on the psych ward of the hospital where I worked. I once had to announce a “code white” over the PA system … where security rushes in to subdue the person. It was my father; refusing the medication. He eventually recovered and got back home, but he was off work for a long time; money money money … He is still a bit resentful at having to remortgage the house to give my mom money as part of the divorce.
Mom ended up marrying a lawyer who is 14 years younger than her. I remember her saying two things over and over as a girl; the first: il faut souffrir d’etre belle … why it was in French I’ll never know, but it means “one must suffer to be beautiful.” The second: It is just as easy to love a rich man as it is to love a poor man.
So suffice it to say that I turned out to be a bit screwed up about money; I wanted to have more of it, while despising those “rich bastards” who had it all. Now I see it as a conflict in beliefs, at the time though, I lived it and BITTERLY. Two divorces worth of bitter.
I was taught – i.e. conditioned to believe things like these: “money is the root of all evil” and “there isn’t enough to go around” and “that’s not fair! Your half is bigger than mine!”
Worse, I picked up the message that I needed “stuff” or else I wasn’t valuable. Stuff like the right kind of jeans in high school, or Adidas runners when they first came out. Things that would give me a sense of belonging, of fitting in. I was only as good as the stuff that I had. Or the haircut I had – dad did “pixie cuts” for us – I went to a salon at 12 for the first time … I had it “so bad!”
I put “so bad” in quotes because I’m actually grateful for EVERYTHING that has ever happened to me. It took me a long time to get “here,” I didn’t become grateful until my 40’s, after I searched and pondered and began to understand who I am and what I believe in. If it wasn’t for my family and their families, I would not be the person that I am. The person that reaches out to share the stuff that IS working, one who shares hope for humanity, who knows we are going to get through this together. There is an easier way!
And the core of discovering that easier way rests within you. It cannot be found in things, or in a bar of gold. Money is just a piece of paper, it is a symbol for the worth or value of whatever you are exchanging. By itself, it is meaningless; the real wealth lies in the exchange – sharing value with one another, reaching out to pull people up, hugging, smiling, BEing … these are all gifts to the world.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Discovering who you really are, diving down that rabbit hole of self-awareness, self-understanding and self-compassion is the best gift you will ever give yourself. Use the question “What does wealth mean to me?” as a jumping off point on your journey of self-discovery.
You are the wealth you have been seeking. Let it flow!