Last Friday, I crashed a surprise birthday party at which I knew absolutely no one and had my worldview totally rocked. But first, a little background…
After coming “home” to Montana from Costa Rica and all the subsequent detours thereafter, Nick and I have mostly returned to life as usual.
By that I mean we’ve settled into a semi-comfortable routine, not that our day-to-day life looks anything like it did before we left.
It doesn’t. At all.
Which was sort of the point.
If nothing else, spending a full year outside of our comfort zones made being uncomfortable more comfortable. So that’s something.
And although we’ve established a decent rhythm that keeps us functional as a family, we’ve made it a goal to keep growing, stretching, meeting new people and becoming new people ourselves.
One way I try to do that is to be more open and connection-minded in public places, like the grocery store, coffee shop, and on the playground with my kids.
I’ve met a lot of really interesting people this way, and even found a totally not creepy method of collecting phone numbers so I can reach out via text (life without Facebook has its challenges).
A few weeks ago, I met another mom of two kids – an older boy and younger girl, just like us.
We struck up a conversation about the Missoula community and job market, I wound up asking for her email, and over the next couple of weeks I threw an invite her way anytime the kids and I were doing something fun.
She wasn’t often able to make it, which I figured was a nice way of telling me to kindly fuck off.
So, imagine my curiosity when I received an email from one of her close friends asking if I’d like to bring my family and join in a surprise birthday party for her.
Always down to try new things, Nick and I accepted the invitation.
That next Friday night, we wrangled the kids into clothes that looked less like pajamas, picked up a fruit tray from the supermarket and headed into the great unknown.
When we showed up at the house, just minutes before the 6:00pm kick-off time, my park acquaintance’s husband answered the door with a child on his hip and a very confused look on his face.
Getting the distinct sense that he might either slam the door in our faces or shoo us off his porch like evangelizing Mormons, I blurted out a quick introduction and waited for his mental wheels to turn.
After what felt like an eternity, he registered a look of slight comprehension and invited us inside.
Instead of hearing the hum of excited banter and clinking of glasses – the soundtrack of a bustling party – we heard an echoing silence that reverberated through the universe.
That was when we realized we were the only ones there.
Not knowing what else to do, we set to work “helping” the gal’s husband set up for the party (something he seemed to prefer doing solo, but reluctantly acquiesced to in order to keep us busy).
And then, we waited. The husband left us alone in the kitchen for awhile while he (presumably) got the rest of the house in order for the party. We debated whether or not to beat a retreat before things got weirder.
The time ticked on… 6:10… 6:15… 6:30…
To our immense relief, we finally heard a knock on the front door followed by laughter and conversation. A group of 8-10 people suddenly crowded into the kitchen, their jokes growing quiet as they took notice of us, the foreigners, hiding in the corner.
Slowly, a few of them approached us and made introductions. They were a friendly bunch, but it became clear that they weren’t accustomed to unfamiliar faces at their gatherings. There was a certain awkwardness to our exchanges, as though they didn’t quite know if they could trust us.
One thing became painfully obvious: they all made more money than we do.
Throughout discussions of major home renovations, upcoming trips abroad and whole-food dieting, all signs pointed to a higher tax bracket.
Not to mention the fact that park/ surprise birthday gal’s house could have easily fit 2 or 3 of our house inside of it.
It was equal parts humbling and intriguing, an entirely new scene for us. We had a good time, but on the drive home and all the next day or so, I felt a growing uneasiness lurking in my psyche.
I’m not used to feeling poor.
Nick and I do okay for ourselves. We own a house, we travel on occasion, we’re able to save up for big purchases. Most of our friends are in similar financial positions, and most of the time, I feel alright about our situation.
Now, though, my eyes were opened to a different, more extravagant lifestyle and all I could see was the relative smallness of my existence.
I couldn’t shake the discomfort of feeling like less of a person because I HAD less.
But more than that, I felt tired of struggling to have and get and acquire when there would always certainly be someone who had far more.
I was fighting a losing battle to earn respect and equality by getting things. I could see it more clearly than ever. And more than anything in the world, I wanted to stop.
The problem is, I’m not fighting this battle in a vacuum. This war is raging against a backdrop of a deeply-rooted cultural belief that money is everything: power, value, self-worth, freedom.
Everything around me points to this as truth.
Changing my perception that what I have is NOT who I am isn’t as simple as making a decision.
It’s going to require the intentional disentangling of my beliefs from those held by my larger community.
It’s going to require thoughtful focus on what really matters – who I am, how I treat people, how I’m actively growing – and a purposeful uprooting of all the mental tapes that equate my self-worth with my net worth.
It’s going to require a lot of self-reflection and humility to admit when I’m falling prey to looking down on others who don’t have as much as I do.
It’s going to require a complete restructuring of my value system, dethroning money from the top spot and replacing it with things like love, patience, humility, and kindness.
In the days leading up to Easter, I’m always plagued by one question: how long did Jesus know he was going to die? It’s obvious that he knew days in advance, as he starts priming his disciples to cope with their impending reality.
But did he know a year prior? In his late 20’s? In his early teens? Because listen, if I knew my death would occur at age 33, I’d be living laaaaarge up until then.
I’d be doing everything I possibly could to travel, experience things, do all the drugs, break all the rules. After all, we only get one chance to live and my end is in sight.
Weirdly, Jesus doesn’t do that. He actually does the exact opposite: tries harder to love people, spends more time and energy giving, teaching and sharing wisdom.
The only way these actions make sense is to view them from a heavenly perspective. If you knew you had far more riches waiting for you after death, getting your hands on more of it in this life wouldn’t matter.
Every material thing would pale in comparison.
Your worth and fulfillment would be determined not by how much you had, but by how much you gave.
It’s an entirely upside-down and backward concept, but a freeing one as well. It’s also an idea you can only accept on faith…
… which sounds like a crock of shit, if it weren’t for the extreme grace of a God whose love is more powerful and enduring than cultural constructs, with an ability to entirely shift your perspective from the ground up.
The whole thing sounds like foolishness, except to those folks who are truly, unashamedly free.