Counterfeit Happiness and The American Consumerist Tradition

Tuesday, August 8, 2017 - 9:16 am

Counterfeit Happiness and The American Consumerist Tradition

On the morning of July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway was famously found dead of a shotgun wound to the head at his home. At first, his fourth wife, Mary, said that it was an accident while cleaning his weapon.

The author was in near perfect health, according to his physician from Mayo Clinic, but Hemingway had lost a lot of weight and had been acting depressed. His friend of 20 years, Chuck Atkinson, had spent time with him the day before, commenting, “He [Hemingway] seemed to be in good spirits. We didn’t talk about anything in particular. I think he spent last night at home.” There was no note to explain, or to say goodbye.

I have been reading Hemingway’s beautiful A Farewell To Arms this summer, and thinking a lot about how we structure our lives in a dizzying myriad of incongruous ways. His words have been an unexpected gift. As a teacher of money, a subject of such great controversy and political divisiveness, I appreciated his depiction of “breaking” in a financial context:

“If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

In my practice, I’ve met people who were financially breaking, and couldn’t reconcile the goodness of their hearts with the impossibility of their financial situations. Everyone was working hard and feeling left behind. There was no faith of anything good beyond the world breaking them.

During these painful conversations, I would be reminded of my childhood as the daughter of Asian immigrants who began their lives in this country at the poverty line. My sister and I were taught the importance of creating a life to make and have money with relentless rigor, to establish a traditionally reputable career. Our parents wanted us to have everything they thought they could never have: financial stability and social acceptance. We lived like hostages to money and everything they believed it could buy.

We bought houses one at a time and renovated them to be sold for profit as soon as possible. Because we didn’t have enough money to rent and live somewhere else during construction, my sister and I learned to live half indoors, half outdoors until we left for college. After a night of cold rain, I would peel the soaked sheets off my body and wade to the breakfast table past wood splinters and debris floating around my ankles. I had to remember to leave my large maroon backpack on the chair the evening before to avoid my books getting soaked from the setting water on the floor.

A recession was a welcome relief. A halt in the economy meant that we would have difficulty selling the home, and my sister and I could live in a completed house for just a little while longer.

My mother and father thought they could never stop. Each house became progressively bigger, the neighborhoods more exclusive, our cars more European. All the while, my sister and I suffered quietly with the ironies of our daily life. There was no money for vacations, pets, or charity. My parents kept running as though we were one dollar away from being left behind forever.

I believe that’s the way most of us feel in this country, a nation built on the tenets of capitalism. We don’t want to miss out on the American dream, of “having it all.” We fear breaking financially. We let go of our own dreams and become busy buying into other people’s dreams for the sake of status and false security.

When I speak with people intimately about their issues with money, the first thing we do is gently pierce their human armor, to lay down their need to seem “fine” or that they’re holding it all together as is. In that space of intense vulnerability, it becomes possible to hear their inner voice. For some people, this voice of purpose that knows who they are and what they really want from their lives has become so buried, both emotionally and physically, it’s a fight to learn to trust it at all. The breaking itself takes time.

Yet, after countless conversations, I’ve found that it’s only after this “breaking” occurs that the work of rebuilding a better life can begin. Before this point, all teachings of personal finance are perceived as acts of self-deprivation or punishment to the student. After the process of breaking, financial strategies such as shedding unneeded things and saving for a rainy day feel like what they were meant to be in accordance to the laws of nature: acts of great self-empowerment, self-love, and freedom.

Hemingway once called his affluent childhood neighborhood of Oak Park, Illinois a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” I grew up in such a place.

I had completely lost myself after 42 years of buying into the American consumerist tradition. I felt that no one could hear me. When I finally sold my piles of unneeded things, including my big white house on a hill, to pursue my own dreams I saw that there may be great hope for us all after the breaking.

What would happen if we let ourselves break with less fear of what may happen next, and moved on to the business of building narrower lawns and wider minds? Less poverty? More room for compassion? Perhaps some space for contributing more and consuming less might emerge. We could find strength after letting go of traditions that didn’t serve us.

Hemingway describes the deaths we must face as merely doors:

“‘The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one’…. (The man who first said that) was probably a coward…. He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave. The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he’s intelligent. He simply doesn’t mention them.”

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Jane Hwangbo

is the founder of Mission Over Money. She’s a graduate of Harvard University and was a portfolio manager for hedge funds and semiconductor analyst on Wall Street. Her bylines include Forbes, Huff Po, Thought Catalog, The Financial Diet, and more.

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  • Gabby

    I too am the child of immigrants,of a family of extremely modest means, in which money was always the central concern, not because of aspirations to accumulate possessions but because of a need to make sure there was always enough for the essentials,something put away for a rainy day, and eventually college for me and my sister. There was never a house.
    My reaction in later life was not to pursue wealth or to buy into other people’s dreams. Mine was rather to need little, having lived with little, and, out of an aversion to the persistent focus on money in my youth, to spend as little time thinking about money as possible.
    Even so, it is very hard for me to waste anything or to spend money on something which is not necessary. A half century or more later, that tendency is thoroughly ingrained.

    • Jane Hwangbo

      It is amazing how our childhood pains never leave us. Thank you for your thoughts, Gabby.

  • Rachael E

    I grew up in a working class family. My Mum preferred church, friends, happiness and ordinariness over wealth. My Dad worked hard and then spent the rest of his time at the local bar betting on horse races. In my mum’s eyes gambling was evil and she seemed unable to settle for anything less than stopping Dad from his habit altogether. She would try to control him and treated him like a naughty child. To avoid confrontation and changing his ways Dad would lie about his whereabouts and cover his tracks to pursue his gambling habit. This became the norm. The cycle in the home would start with Mum finding evidence that Dad was gambling, followed by Mum yelling at Dad for lying to her. Dad would deny everything and swear black and blue that he had not been gambling. Heated arguing would pursue until someone walked out and slammed a door. Mum would then give Dad the silent treatment for a week or so until she was forced to talk to him again. Then they would resume life as normal as if nothing had happened. This cycle is still in full swing today. No patterns or habits have changed between the. No one has broken. They are still together. Life goes on. 10 years ago I thought I would reveal the big dirty black secret my Dad (and us as a family) have lugged around for years but I didn’t. I knew it could break my Dad. I wasn’t ready to face the consequences.

    My husband is an only child of two proud and strong-willed parents. Their stubborn nature caused them to disown their son (my husband) when he decided to marry me (as they did not approve). His parents have lived through an earthquake and the post-math causing his mum’s health decline and bring on a stroke that left her paralysed on one side of her body. They have not broken. They will most likely go to their graves without ever meeting their grandchildren, not because we deny them meeting our children or spending time with them, but because their unbroken state causes them to see themselves as “in the right” and so they refuse to try and make amends (even though the door to do so has never closed).

    My husband also seems unbreakable. He takes after his parents but cloaked in a different means of his own fear of breaking. That fear has brought him success and respect and a narrow minded view which he protects vigilantly. Many times when I disrupt the tightrope that he walks on he uses guilt and veiled threats to pull me back into his world of keeping the balls in the air. I suppose I help prop them up to some extent. Perhaps I enable his fear based lifestyle in a similar way my mum enabled my Dad’s habits by keeping it a secret as much as him.

    Thanks for this post. It’s allowed me to see my life through a different lens.

    In terms of my own breaking, that has been slowly taking place I believe..

    • Gabby

      My heart goes out to you. My parents also never changed during their lifetime. I often wondered whether there was anything I could have done, but I don’t think there was.

      • Rachael E

        Thankyou Gabby. I also have had many thoughts around this topic. The older I get the more I realise I can’t change others, only myself, and others may follow my lead, but they also may not.

        • Jane Hwangbo

          Thank you for sharing, Gabby and Rachael. To this day, my parents are the same too. They divorced years ago and yet choose to live their lives just as before. As a humorous afterword, they did choose to get divorced during the days of my wedding. That was suuuuper fun. Over time, like Gabby, I realized that I could never change anyone other than myself. And like Rachael, I have been painfully breaking in phases over the last few years. I can say now that I’m deeply thankful to have been given the opportunity to see things with fresh eyes. Working on ourselves is all we can do, and it’s enough.

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