When the stock market plunged a few years back, my stock portfolio suffered a serious case of meltdown.
Then, I received more bad news: one of our investments turned out to be a scam. And more money was gone.
I was bummed.
I was stunned. And angry with myself.
How could I have let this happen?
Why was I such an idiot?
My internal critic took off his gloves and was pummeling my psyche.
At least, I knew enough to get some exercise.
Swimming always clears my mind.
So, 50 laps later, I’m sitting in the lobby of the YMCA waiting for Devi to come out of the women’s locker room.
A few feet away, leaning against the wall, is a large cardboard thermometer announcing the latest fund raising effort. The bottom section of the thermometer is colored red indicating that almost $20,000 has been raised so far.
Seeing this gets me thinking about money again. And my bad judgment. And what a dummy I am.
Just then, a young girl of about 4 years old and her mother enter the YMCA.
The little girl sees the cardboard thermometer. She runs over and presses her back to it. She stands up tall and calls to her mother, “How much am I? How much am I?”
At first I don’t get it. How much am I? Then it dawns on me . . .
The little girl has mistaken the fundraising thermometer for a giant ruler.
Her mother says, “That doesn’t measure how tall you are. It measures money.”
The little girl looks confused for a second and then asks, “Okay. How much money am I? Am I a lot of money?”
Her mother leans over to determine where the little girl’s head touches the thermometer. “I guess you’re about $40,000.00,” she laughs.
The little girl smiles and skips away.
How much money am I?
An interesting question. From one perspective, it makes no sense.
I’m not measured in money. And yet, that’s how I was feeling.
The loss of my net-worth emotionally equated to a loss of self-worth.
When the money was rolling in, I felt smart, successful, on top of it. When it plummeted, so did my self-perception.
My self-worth and my net-worth had become confused.
I was as mistake as the little girl leaning up against the fund raising thermometer. I’d conflated my value – my worth – for my portfolio.
And when I identify my self with things such as a bank balance, title, position, achievements, or possessions – the clarity of my judgment is obscured.
I make bad decisions when I confuse who I am for what I own.
I will tend to substitute prestige and power for personal development and focus more on acquiring things than deepening relationships.
The confusion of self-worth with net-worth leads to the very kinds of decisions that produced the financial crisis – as well as the “solutions” that are sustaining it.
It’s easy to see the way others – particularly those with huge bonus checks – are trapped in a false identification.
What’s sometimes less easy to see is how those same mistaken beliefs – about self and money - have infiltrated our own souls.
The little girl and the cardboard thermometer reminded me of how deeply I had adopted the cultural misconception that merges my identity with my money.
The little girl reminded me that:
I have a bank account. I am not my bank account.
I have a degree. I am not that degree.
I have a car. I am not a car.
Remembering these obvious truths doesn’t mean I’m glad to have lost the money.
I’m not. I’d rather get wisdom AND fund my retirement!
But, what the little girl and the thermometer taught me (again) was not to mistake who I am for what I have. Or what I do.
So, who am I?
It’s one of the BIG questions. Ask it yourself.
Pursuing this very question, deeply, fiercely, will allow you to peel off layer upon layer of false identities and identifications.
Who am I? It’s more of a mantra than a question.
Breathe the mantra in – who am I? - and listen for your mind’s response. If you take this mantra deeply to heart, it will clarify the distinction between having and being.
Who am I? is not really a question to answer. It’s a tool to deepen your awareness of how you’ve mistaken who you are for some thing, activity, image, or achievement. So, you can let the identification go. (Me too.)
Maybe it’s time to learn to let go – to liberate the sense of self from those thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions that are causing suffering.
For yourself. For those you love. For the world.
Perhaps, one of the gifts of this current financial/ecological/pandemic/you-name-it crisis will be that we cease to cherish some of the self-destructive illusions that preserve false identities and create suffering.
You and I don’t have to wait to make that choice.
For me I only have to remember the voice of that little girl, “How much am I?”
Because when I do, I smile and let go of another layer.
I’m glad I was in the lobby of the YMCA so a little girl and a cardboard thermometer could remind me to let go of one of my illusions.
Questions for reflection & action:
• What “things” are you identified with?
• What would happen if you stopped identifying with them?
• When have you gained a truer sense of who you are through losing something you didn’t want to let go of?
• What is a cherished illusion of yours that is causing suffering?
How can you begin to let it go?