I was recently interviewed for a podcast where one of the interviewers asked why I used such difficult words in my blog. I was taken aback by the question because I don’t think I use 50¢ words unless it is to increase clarity.
In this third and last installment of Christmas themed personal finance posts I am going to be guilty of the most egregious crime: I will use another 50¢ word to convey a message of importance.
It started with the popular current activity of paying for the person behind you in the checkout line or fast food drive-through. It certainly is fine gesture of goodwill. I rarely eat at fast food restaurants, but started to wonder what I would do if my meal were paid for. Would I pay for the person behind me if there was someone behind me in line to keep the cycle going?
The more I thought about it the more it disturbed me. Why should my meal be comped when I have ample financial resources? Shouldn’t the money be applied where needed the most, with people suffering financial hardship?
The same thing happens at the grocery store. A kind fellow (or woman) pays for the groceries of someone next to them. I like this more because it is at least easier to determine if the person in question could use the financial help. But that isn’t a guarantee, however. I dress down often and look like a homeless man more often than not. You can ask my employees. I’ve been known to wander in wearing worn jogging pants and a t-shirt. Judging a book by its cover is a 50/50 proposition at best.
The act of kindness I find most beneficial is when someone pays the utility bills for several people who are struggling financially, as noted by their delinquent bill.
Regardless the Christmas spirit, there is always a nagging voice warning me such behavior could be counter-productive or going to the wrong soul.
A Christmas Carol
I can’t imagine there is anyone reading this post that is unfamiliar with the short Charles Dickens holiday novel, A Christmas Carol. Most have seen one of the myriad adaptions of the book. Some renditions are really good and some are left lacking and untrue to the original story.
We all remember the ghosts visiting Scrooge: the ghost of Christmas past, present and future. It is the ghost of Christmas present that interests us most.
As you recall, the ghost of Christmas present took Scrooge to see his nephew’s house and the laughter-filled party. It was a humble celebration for sure, but celebration no less. But that was not all the ghost of Christmas present had to reveal.
Upon leaving the Cratchits’, Scrooge was taken from the city of London to the “deserted moor” of a miners camp; then to a solitary lighthouse under the crash of waves; and finally to the desk of a ship far out at sea. In each instance the celebration was humble. Kind words, the humming of a Christmas tune were the extent of the Christmas celebrations. It was humility the spirit wanted Scrooge to see; humility while celebrating the greatest hope ever offered.
And then Scrooge heard laughter, the laughter of his nephew as he is ripped back to the scene of Christmas present closer to home.
Now for our 50¢ word. You might remember this word from church if you are a person of faith. Propitiation is generally used in religion to mean “the paying of another’s debts”. A more accurate representation of propitiation is to “appease”.
Today’s 50¢ word is required because the meaning is so much deeper and richer and the explanation spreads far further than mere appeasement. This is part of your life in the secular world as well.
To propitiate is to seek favor. That is opposite of my pay-it-forward philosophy. Paying for the person’s meal behind me creates a debt for that person. What if the person behind you is poorer than you and barely has the funds to pay for his own meal and the person behind him has a more expensive meal? You did no favors to that one person.
A child who breaks a vase might wash the dishes for mom before being asked as a peace offering; a form of propitiation.
An act of propitiation must be conciliatory. You are sorry for some action or words spoken. Propitiation is more than saying, “Sorry.” It is an act meant to convey your deep-felt sorrow for having committed the act or saying the words. A single word is rarely adequate to propitiate.
Why do we feel compelled to propitiate? And why is it so important? Because it really deals with trust. You show an act of kindness so the person knows they can trust you and the negative act or words were unintended. It is unlikely you would feel compelled to propitiate to a stranger. A simple “Sorry” suffices if you cut a stranger off. But a friend, someone you trust and want to trust you requires more if you value the relationship.
This is not to take away from the value to giving to others. This is the season of giving. But is it giving if you saddle yourself with debt? How will the people close to you, and that trust you, feel if you cause personal money problems because you gave too much?
I strongly feel the pull of charity. Life has been very good to me. However, I measure carefully the gifts I give. I do not want to enable bad behavior or make matters worse. Working through money problems is hard, but gives you the skills to survive the rest of your life without much outside help. There is something to be said about that.
While Scrooge learned to share with all after the visit from the Christmas ghosts, he focused his giving where it did most good. Scrooge understood propitiation. The fat turkey was sent to the Cratchits’ household; extra coal for heat was allowed at the office.
The pages of my copy of A Christmas Carol are yellow with some pages torn. The book has been with me a very long time. I think I bought it when I was in junior high as part of a book drive at school. I thought it was a book of Christmas songs, if memory serves. I was unenlightened in my youth. Time has remedied the issue.
Periodically I pull the text from my shelves for a reminder on how to live life right. I look back in my life to gather a full assessment of where I have been. Everyone has things they would rather have forgotten. But in the dark brutal honestly is the only way.
After reviewing your past, take an inventory of the present. Life, you will find, is probably a lot better than you allow yourself to enjoy.There are so many things to be grateful for: family, health (you are alive and reading this, right?), neighbors (they are better than you think), community and so forth.
Once you review your past and take an inventory of the present, you can create the future most desirable to you. Money problems can be addressed, love rekindled with your spouse or significant other, serving in your community where it benefits most. Remember, you cannot control what “they” do, but you have complete control over what “you” do and think.
If you want to pay for the meal of the person behind you, go for it! It was not my intention to dissuade you from such behavior. There is something heart-warming about the activity. Even this weary-eyed blogger has paid for the groceries of an older lady at the grocery store when he saw the need.
Be sure to focus your gifts where they will produce the intended outcome.
A final story: Years ago I was coming home from work in a snow storm. Tax season was getting long and I was tired. The car in front of me lost control, a snow drift throwing the car. He ended up in the ditch.
I stopped to make sure the young man was unharmed. People didn’t have cell phones in those days the way we do today, so I offered to drive him home. He accepted.
As I dropped him off at his home he asked me what I wanted for the ride, indicating money. I waved my hand “no”.
He was a young gentleman and it was obvious he was not financially flush. I didn’t help him with the intention of earning a fee. The good feeling knowing he got home safe was enough.
I left the young man with these words: “The next time you see someone in need, you help them. That is all I ask.”
That was a very long time ago. Sometimes I wonder if the young man ever carried out my directive.
Please don’t think I am against giving. Gifts to friends, family or co-workers is a fine activity. Keep it reasonable so nobody suffers financially as a result.
Helping strangers is the ultimate charity. Homeless and abuse shelters are wonderful ways to give where it makes a large difference to those who really need help.
Some gifts are debts. You may hear of propitiation at church this Christmas season. You may wish to appease a family member or friend you treated poorly to regain trust.
No matter your reasons, always be ready to pay-it-forward. Just never do more harm by the giving.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, kind readers. May the spirit of the season be with you and your family all year round.
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The year is 1991. Mrs. Accountant and I had a foster child that year. On Christmas morning I was to take him to his mother for a day. We got up early and dressed for the chilly morn. I lived in town at the time. His mother lived in apartments near the Valley Fair Mall, the first mall in America.
The mall is gone now, replaced by a variety of shops, a gas station, and a movie theater. The apartments still stand. As I drove down Memorial Drive we rounded the curve toward the apartments. The road was dead quiet. No cars anywhere. It felt peaceful. A major highway completely empty. It only happens once per year on Christmas morning. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and watched a lone snowflake land on the glass and melt. I leaned forward and looked up at the early morning sky out the windshield. The hair on my skin rose with gooseflesh.
“Where is everyone,” asked my foster child, a huge young man from a family with more issues than I care to remember.
“They are sleeping,” I said in barely a whisper. “Resting. But not for long. They are exhausted from all the running and spending. Resting for a day. Tomorrow they will be back, crazed as ever, credit card in hand.” I turned to my foster child, “Never be like them.”
There is a tavern near my office, owned by a client. It is Christmas Eve. I finish a few details in the office before heading home to be with my family. The lights are on at the tavern I do tax work for. I stop. There is only one customer in the place, another client.
All the TVs are off save one. That television has a game of basketball playing. The announcer’s voice is the only sound in the room. As the customer’s glass nears the bottom, the bartender refills it without a word. The words of Billy Joel come to mind:
“Yes, they’re sharing a drink called “Loneliness”, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
I wish them “Merry Christmas”, shaking their hands with a wide smile. They smile back, but their eyes do not. I turn and go home to my wife and daughters.
The next year on Christmas Eve I decided to visit a client in the nearby nursing home. She doesn’t come in anymore; she doesn’t make enough and isn’t required to file. The hallways are empty and silent. I walk to her room. I can hear the sound of my footsteps on the carpet. The sound of a small low-quality television is coming from her room.
The door is slightly ajar. I tap. Nothing. I slowly push the door open. My client turns, smiling at recognizing a familiar face. She says nothing. Words are hard for her; she is 97. She hasn’t had a visitor in decades. Her husband died thirty years ago. Her parents and siblings are residents of the local cemetery. She never remarried or had children. I hold her hand as a 1950s sitcom plays in black and white on the TV. Her hand is cold, clammy. She places her other hand on the top of mine. The warmth of my hand warms hers. No words are spoken.
I stand to leave and say, “Merry Christmas”, giving her a hug and a kiss on the forehead. She has a pale smile. A solitary tear streams from her rheumy eyes.
Three days later she dies.
I live and work in a rural farming community. A client of many years with a drinking problem left the house one Christmas Eve. He walked to the barn, the pain of life too much to bear.
The next morning the children wondered where dad had gone. They find their father in the barn hanging from the end of a rope. It is early Christmas morning.
Fifteen years after our foster child went home for good with his mother he notices me at my new office location and stops. He introduces me to his girlfriend. I don’t know what to say. He explains he was hooked on drugs and his mother was the one who introduced him to the drugs. It ended his college and football career. He is a big boy. He could easily have made it in the big league if things were different.
We shook hands and he left. I never saw him again. That was ten years ago.
When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. So begins Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages.
That gapping dichotomy of joy and sadness only exists around Christmas now.
The office is growing quiet as Christmas approaches. I stare out the window behind my desk and wonder which client I will see this year. The employees are joking and laughing across the way. All day clients came in dropping off gifts. I don’t give gifts. It doesn’t matter. There was a gift on my desk this morning from my Secret Santa. Chocolate. Dawn, of course.
It is nighttime now. Mrs. Accountant and my youngest daughter are in bed. My oldest daughter sits on the couch watching a movie on her computer. She can see something is wrong. I fill my water glass nearly to the top with Jack and take a deep draught.
I carry the whisky to the front window and look up at the clear winter sky. After a few minutes I put on a light jacket and walk outside. My oldest gets mom and her sister. They watch out the window, afraid I might walk toward the barn.
The sky is filled with diamonds of sparkling points. The crisp winter air causes me to shiver. I wonder if one of those stars has a planet and on that planet is an intelligent creature looking up from her night sky and wondering if anyone is looking back. I wonder.
I tip the cup and drink deeply, allowing the liquid to burn as it goes down. The stars are not crisp anymore. The alcohol is doing its job of killing the pain and blinding my sight. The whisky is reaching its conclusion. I take a deep breath and wonder if my client is at the bar again this Christmas Eve drinking alone.
I wonder. I wonder what happened to our foster children, if they ever had a chance at life. I wonder.
I wonder if the old woman is in heaven with her husband now. I wonder if she ever found peace.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Memorial Drive will be as silent as a horror movie the day after the world ends. I will not be there to witness the event.
Two girls look out the window at their dad, one woman at her husband. They can see I am weeping. They know I carry a heavy burden, a burden of years loving and caring for the people I serve. They also know there is a mental and emotional price to pay for caring so deeply for the people you serve.
The whisky is gone now, but the pain remains. Clouds begin to obscure the stars and a few fluffy flakes of snow gently travel to the ground. Mrs. Accountant and the girls are at my side and nudging me to return to the warmth of our home. I know why they are there. They are worried I might not find my way into the house and instead walk to the barn.
They take me by the elbow and guide me back inside as I bid farewell for another year to a