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The Jaws of Debt December 5, 2013

Posted by michaelnjohns in Uncategorized.

Preface:  This is not a request for money.  But if you’re hiring writers or preachers for a decent wage, hook me up.  I’ll work for it.


     I’m deep in debt, not including the house and car payments, gas for the car, utilities, etc.  Every month I slide a little farther down, and the creditors are calling.  We beg off and have gotten by so far.  We’ve even consolidated debts and refinanced the house once.  I’m not lazy.  I want to earn my living.  I work more than 40 hours a week, but I earn a wage that for a family of four is considered below the poverty line.  Darn it, if that sense of personal responsibility and work ethic don’t rob me of my proper sense of entitlement.  I could just file for bankruptcy, because I’m privileged, but I feel like since I borrowed it I should pay it back.  And what’s the point of bankruptcy when I still earn what I earn and have fixed expenses I can’t change.  I’d just be bankrupt again in another 5 years.   When emergencies come up, like medical issues or major car repairs, that greases the debt slide.  Credit cards don’t want us borrowing more, and the house payment is modest but difficult every month.  And what do the creditors do when you struggle to pay?  They raise your interest and finance charges so you have to pay more than you owe.  That’s logical—you can’t pay?  Then you have to pay us more.  But I have a roof over my head and creditors haven’t repossessed it yet. 

     My wife goes to the free food pantry because our income is low enough to qualify for their help.  So there’s food on the table.  We used to be the ones donating to those, now we thank them for helping us.  Sure, it’s not steak and KFC and delivery pizza, but it’s food.  I appreciate rice and ramen.  I also like the canned vegetables and peanut butter and meat and cheese we’ve been given.  I could just sign up for welfare and food stamps, because we qualify, which means in a twisted way that I’m privileged, but I feel like I should work hard and try to pay my own way through life.  When we first had the kids, we had the money, and we used to give away more than we should have I guess, in light of the current situation.  But if I hadn’t given it away, would I have had the presence of mind to save it?  Probably not.  Too soon older and too late wiser, I appreciate any help we get.

     My back is sore.  I could just go to a chiropractor because I am privileged, but that would mean another $20 or more taken away from the house payment, and then two days recovering from being “adjusted,” during which I can’t move without anti-inflammatory drugs.  I remember when I used to go –I only went because I had to, when my back finally was so out of alignment I couldn’t move without agony- but that was before, when we had a little better handle on our money, meaning we used to earn more.  I’ve learned a way to almost adjust myself, which keeps that pain at bay most of the time.  We moved to be closer to family, and I miss money like a long-lost friend.  We bought a house that was barely big enough for us, and thought we could afford the payments because it was not bigger than we needed.  For the same money, we still couldn’t afford even a smaller rental.  But the reality of our income and the lack of advancement potential in the jobs I’ve found is setting in.

     My teeth are in need of repairs.  With aging, some of my old fillings have just fallen out and the teeth are cracked.  I could just go to the dentist, because I’m privileged, but he wants over a thousand dollars to fix them.  The free clinic said they would pull them out for me, but I’ll wait and see.  As for the thousand, I don’t think it’d be responsible to borrow more when I’m already not able to pay back what I’ve already borrowed from other people.  So I’m living with it and taking care of what I’ve got left.

     It all started with a van we drove until it fell apart and we tried to get it fixed, borrowed the money to repair the “motor,” and then the “engine” blew, and we learned there was a difference between the “engine” and the “motor,” which was car-repair-shop-speak that meant the car repair place, actually a dealer, was unwilling to stand behind their work but weren’t going to confess to that.  We could have just bought a new car because we’re privileged, but in the uncertainty of the time, and already being limited financially, we felt it would be more responsible to preserve the value of what we already had, not realizing the dealer was going to take our money and leave us by the roadside.  It felt like a legal carjacking.  Our car was dead.  We had to get another one, so we borrowed more to buy another old used van and inherited its’ failings.  The battery drained out a week ago, although recently we paid to have it replaced.  We recharged it and hope it’ll keep starting. Because I’m privileged, I could just call a taxi or a limo.  Or I could take public transportation, but the buses don’t run in our area at all.  I’d ride a bike but the other struggling, racing commuters would probably kill me, if I didn’t fall off and crack my own skull.

     Recently, a friend of mine got married and I needed a suit.  So I went to the secondhand thrift shop.  I could have just gone to a men’s wear department or a tailor, because I’m privileged, but I decided spending $10 was more financially responsible than borrowing a lot more, to get a nicer suit.  Fortunately, they had a sport jacket and a pair of pants that looked nice enough and fit ok.  No one at the wedding was looking at us, since the bride was lovely, but they might have noticed if I had worn my tattered old jacket and pants with the holes at elbow and…  well, I need stitches in a certain area before I can decently wear that pair out in public. 

     I interviewed for a new job the other day.  They liked me and the interview seemed to go very well.  But I got the rejection notice a few days later.  They said words like “strong credentials,” and “work history” which I have because I’m privileged, or because I work hard and try to stay employed instead of giving up.  But they mentioned them along with the word “overqualified,” which meant I couldn’t work for them for more money.   I have to keep the jobs I have, that pay less and work longer.  I could just find another job that pays more money, because I’m privileged, but so far I’m being told I’m just too good to earn more money.  To me that is employer-speak for “we don’t want to hire you; we’ll get someone younger and smarter.”  I have to work longer if I want anything extra.  Unless I want to be indigent and then I only get what’s given.  And overtime hours are given at the employer’s grace, not at my necessity.

     I could just live within my means, if living didn’t include usury on our existing debts.  When people have money, other people want to hand them more.  When people don’t have money, other people want to take what they have, and then take what they don’t have, away.  “The poor plead for mercy, but the rich answer harshly” (Prov. 18:23).  And “the borrower is a slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7).  We’ve had emergencies that have tapped our reserves.  In the urgency of the moments, I felt I had to borrow, and now the loan sharks at the bank have me trapped and bleeding out in their jaws.

     I could be a more prolific writer if I had a laptop, which I guess I could just go buy because I’m privileged, but that luxury cost would just go on the bill pile, unpaid.  So the family shares use of the old desktop computer we’ve had for a long time.  It’s been kept running by a family member who is a genius at Computer CPR, un-gunking it when we gunk it.  And I have to wait for those magical windows, when I get inspired to write when I have the time and energy and access all at the same time.  We got a free monitor when the old one died, another blessing.  I am counting the blessings, and they are numerous.

     I used to know what really good coffee tasted like, not because I had an extra $5 or $10 a day, but because I worked in a coffee store.  I miss good coffee too.  I also drive past the fast food breakfast places, and bring a sack lunch because I don’t feel that I should spend that money every day.  Because I’m privileged, I could just spend the extra money to take myself out to grab a fast food breakfast and a good cup of coffee, and maybe even go out for lunch, but that extra $5, or, if I really felt entitled, $15 or $20, a day isn’t in the budget.  Sorry, Starbucks, McDonalds and Cracker Barrel, I can’t make it to see you.

     There’s plenty of heat on the prayer line going up, but I haven’t seen the miraculous financial breakthrough the preacher on TV promised me yet.  Maybe it’s because I only give what I can at church, which is more time than cash, and didn’t send any cash to the TV guy in the fancy suit.  I hear he drives luxury cars and flies to do “mission work” in a private jet and stays at upscale hotel suites, not my choice in my financial state.  But because I’m privileged, I know it’ll come.  It’s been coming for the past 8 years, but I think it got lost on a detour and just has to find its way back to me.

     These are first world problems, I know, so although I seem to be complaining, really I’m just stating the facts as I see them from the perspective of someone who knows there’s privilege to be had if you’re lucky or blessed enough to get it.  And there’s opportunity if you’re fortunate enough to find it and then work hard enough to properly harness it.  But I also know that I’m not any more entitled to it than anyone else, despite the prevalent American sense of entitlement and easy, or instant, gratification.  I hear some people complain about their under-privileged, current station in life, and I know it’s hard for them, whether it’s their fault or not.  It’s hard for me too, but especially when I look at it with an eye to how entitled I am and wonder why it’s not handed to me on a silver platter.  And I have depressed and frustrated and even angered myself, when I looked at it that way.  We live in a free country, but not everyone can win the lottery or work a high-end job. 

     But the complainers I hear, like me, are frequently guilty of creating their own difficult situations.  Desperation makes a bad decision making partner.  Anger makes a really bad one.  Greed makes an even worse one.  Lust for power, and demanding, self-entitled hubris doesn’t help.  It only makes people, including me, want to hate you and not want to help even if they could.  If you know me though, you know I don’t, and won’t, hate you, and you also know that if you have a need and I’m able to meet it or help meet it, I’ll give you what I have even if it’s my last dollar, and not expect you to give it back.  Ever.  Just pay it forward, give it to the person you can help, when you can.

     I may sometimes eat donated food, ramen, rice and beans, and drink cheap or free coffee.  But there’s coffee, and food on the table—I am slowly getting lean but not anywhere close to starving to death.  I have a cold house this winter, but I control the thermostat, I have a roof over my head, and we’re not freezing to death.  I may have tatty, thrift shop clothes, but I have clothes.  I wore my old shoes until they had holes in them—seriously, I had wet socks when it rained—before I got another cheap pair, but I have shoes.  I may have an old used car with its share of issues.  But I have a car.  I have kids who complain about the lack of extra money to treat them like other parents treat their kids.  I’d love to be able to give them more than the other parents we hear about give their kids.  But I have kids and I love them.  I have a wife I would love to dress in fine clothes and shoes, buy romantic and practical gifts, and take out on dates, but I can’t afford to do that.  But I have a wife and I love her.  I have bills to pay, and I feel like I’m on the ragged edge of poverty, but I still have work which means paychecks, even though I haven’t seen any of it to spend on luxuries for a while.

     I’m holding on to the edge and as soon as I can, I’m going to pull myself back up, unless someone pushes me off, or throws me a rope without an anchor attached.  But I’m still holding on.  I worry that God is going to pull a Lazarus stunt on me and wait until I’m dead before He shows up with the miracle, just so He gets more glory out of it.  Be sure to see it:  His glory is already revealed in my story.  My life isn’t free-flowing cash, tailored suits, new cars, champagne, caviar and steak.  But He gets the glory right now because of all that I DO have, that others don’t.  Did I mention I walk with a limp, but I walk?  But that is another story, with more glory to Him.  Back to topic:  The best thing on the list of things I have is that I know about God and I know I can pray to Him, which others don’t.  And that, above all, makes me privileged.



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