Am I people's worst nightmare?
**Giveaway alert! Read through to the end!**
Okay, so as many of you already know, I wrote a slightly controversial piece about emergency funds and it was... well... controversial.
Almost everyone disagreed with me. Some produced reasoned arguments; some had extenuating circumstances (such as self-employment). A lot of folks just kept insisting that I was leading myself down a dangerous path.
Whatever the arguments, most of the comments contained one cohesive element: I began to realize that these people’s definition of emergency is what Tim and I call our life.
A brief overview
Most of you know, but just for the record, our financial situation is as follows:
- I am on disability, earning $832/month
- My husband in on unemployment earning $1364/month
- His quasi-COBRA (the company is too small for the real thing) is $476/month
- My meds not covered by Medicare are about $100/month
- Rent is $700
I think we can safely say that our current financial situation is not exactly most people’s ideal.
In fact, I had trouble coming up with ways it could be worse. Finally, after some brainstorming, I came up with a few:
- We could have a mortgage
- We could have a car payment
- We could both be on disability
- We could have children to support
When you’re busy surviving your life, you don’t have a lot of time for reflection. So I was a little shocked to realize we are living out most people’s worst fears.
This comes with a weird mix of emotions. I was oddly proud, vaguely indignant, and, most of all, I was frustrated.
I always got the sense that we fear disability/unemployment because it limits our options and our income. With so much out of our control, we fear that our finances will come crashing down around our heads.
But Tim and I are surviving. We’re even chipping away at debt .
Still, people seem convinced we’ll fail.
The thing is, I think I touched a nerve. Emergency funds allow people to believe they can actively insulate themselves from tragedy. They’re a kind of security blanket: They don’t really have magic powers, but just having them around makes you feel safer.
And there’s nothing wrong with needing to feel safe. The world has so few absolutes, we’re practically forced to manufacture some of our own. After all, if we faced the real amount of uncertainty in the world, we’d never get out of bed. (And even then, the roof might fall on us.)
So, people need to feel safe – no crime there. What worries me is when the issue of safety supersedes critical thinking. In the grip of fear, people don’t act so much as they react.
This feels familiar
Anyone who has ever been serious ill can probably tell you how it changes peoples’ mannerisms. For me, it was going out in a wheelchair. Very educational.
There are two main reactions from the public when you’re young and sick. People either can’t look at you or can’t stop looking at you. (I have yet to figure out which is worse.)
It’s pretty awful when people studiously avoid looking at you. Once I got close, people suddenly found store window displays fascinating.
Seeing me meant accepting that the world doesn’t play fair. And while we all know this on some level, I think it’s seen as bad taste to rub it in.
But the people who did look at me weren’t any better. They stared and stared, looking so earnestly for some clue, some explanation.
If we can name something, we have some control over it. Even more, as we name and define things, we are able to distinguish between ourselves and the “other.” And when the “other” is sick, we need to differentiate ourselves just that much more.
Going the distance
And so when you find yourself talking to people about your condition (or accident, or whatever) you find them nearly desperate to praise you: you’re so strong, so brave; they could have never survived the way you did.
By making you larger than life, they can comfort themselves. You’re strong; you could handle getting sick. They couldn’t. So they’re safe.
How much choice do these people think we have? I was paralyzed and on a ventilator. It’s not like I could exactly scream, kick and bite, or lock out the physical therapist.
Moreover, I was constantly being told that mine was a temporary condition. I would get through this, they said. So I did. Mainly because I wasn’t sure what else there was to do.
Stop the world, I want to get off
So all those people who think they couldn’t handle what I handled… I have some bad news. You don’t really have a choice.
Whether you’re laid up in a hospital bed or getting a pink slip, you don’t get a lot of say in life’s major moments. The universe doesn’t bend itself to your needs – even when you think your world is breaking apart, it’ll be going on its merry way. It’ll probably even whistle a jaunty tune.
I understand that it’s hard to think clearly when you feel helpless. But, sometimes, that’s just what you are. You can throw a fit or whimper in a corner. You’ll probably give in before the universe does.
When you get right down to it, you can only have a breakdown for so long. Scream and cry, if you want. Throw things, wail, and gnash your teeth. Be my guest. Eventually you’ll be tired, dehydrated and hoarse.
- So you get up for a glass of water, and you notice the dishes are still in the sink. You're pretty sure that's penicillin growing on them.
- The papers are piling up outside your door. Neighborhood children have built (multi-level) forts out of them.
- The cat's litter box is starting to offend neighboring countries.
I’m not saying you jump right back into life. It’s much slower a process than that.
But, while you sip that water, you realize that no one is going to fix this for you. So it’s either death by dust-bunny inhalation or rolling up your sleeves and tackling those dishes.
So, okay, people often don’t operate well when they base their actions on fear. So maybe we all need to take a closer look at just what we’re so afraid of.
I was terrified of Tim becoming unemployed. But as his health made him miss more and more days of work, I was constantly tense. I was just waiting for the inevitable. And I constantly wondered how we would be able to pay bills.
So when it finally happened, I was actually kind of relieved. When we found out he could get unemployment, we realized we’d be okay.
All that time and energy I’d spent on fear had been wasted on pointless speculation. It didn't help me prepare. It just frittered away my already-limited energy. Not the smartest choice.
So ask yourself: How much is your fear shaping your strategies, in life and in finance?
In this spirit, I’m giving away a hardback copy of Dale Carnegie’s book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. This book, which has been in my library for awhile, has an interesting approach to stress and fear.
So, here's how to enter:
- Refer a friend to the site. I’ll need them to leave a comment, including who referred them. (This gets your blog a mention, too, don’t forget. So it’s win-win.)
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Multiple entries are possible, so do more than one or refer more than one person.