This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s new columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column will look at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome.
“There’s a phrase we live by in America: ‘In God We Trust.’ It’s right there where Jesus would have wanted it, on our money.” –- Stephen Colbert
I’m always glad to have a chance to increase my vocabulary; during these last couple of weeks, a favorite word among economists everywhere was whipsaw. The actual tool itself is that sort of old-fashioned long saw with a handle at each end used by two lumberjacks at the same time to get through a tree. But it also means what happened on Wall Street recently. The market was whipsawed, and for those watching their portfolios or retirement accounts closely, it was not unlike whiplash.
It’s tempting, in difficult times, to shake an angry fist at the sky. And these are, for many, difficult times. I can see it in the rise in requests from local food banks, in the discouragement of those who have been unemployed far too long, in the retiree who doesn’t know how to stretch that budget any further, in the eggshell-walking of those who just want desperately to hang on to the job they do have. It all feels rather fragile.
Trust is a funny word when it comes to our financial lives. It’s a very interesting word to put on money, given how anxiety-provoking money (its presence or lack) is in so many people’s lives. We are expected, in some way, to trust everything:
- Trust our financial systems.
- Trust the principles of capitalism.
- Trust the huge banks and corporations that manage so much of the stuff.
- Trust that it will all work out in the end.
In shaky economic times like this one, I wonder about how that trust is holding up. Do we still trust that we’ll return to a growth economy? That our nest eggs will go back to growing, instead of stagnating? The phrase “In God We Trust” has been on American coins since 1864 and on paper money since 1956. I can’t help but wonder whether this assertion seemed a little absurd during the Great Depression. If we lose our trust in the institutions and systems, then what’s left?
Another word for trust is faith. As we survey our personal and national economic landscape, it’s worth pondering what we really have faith in. Beyond institutions, corporations, banks, economic philosophies, all of which can and do fail, in what can we place our faith? Where lies our ultimate trust that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well?” What keeps us from cynicism and doomsday prophecy, from the assumption that when the systems fail, human communities will be reduced to a sort of Lord of the Flies survivalist competition?
I have faith in a foundational human spirit of generosity. Over and over, we seem more inclined to care for our neighbors than not, especially in times of shared crisis. I have faith that one of the primary characteristics of Life, itself, is abundance, and when we remember that we, too, are part of that Life, that sense of abundance can color our understandings of what enough looks like, and help us see beyond material abundance. On a really good day, I even manage to have faith in something like God, something whole and compassionate that urges us to be bearers of wholeness and compassion in our own lives-even our financial lives.
In the Buddhist tradition, a monk goes out each day with an empty bowl. Whatever others place in his bowl will be his nourishment for the day. When our bowls seem empty, perhaps we might go out into the world and experience its abundance for ourselves. And when you see an empty bowl, perhaps you might put some nourishment into it.
In what do you trust in anxious times? Where do you place your faith? When things are looking economically bleak, what sustains your hope for having enough resources?
Editor’s note: See the “About the Author” section below to learn more about the author, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column appears approximately monthly on Consumerism Commentary.
Published or updated August 28, 2011.