Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2012
In these times of financial crunch, many of us are living on less or anticipating we will when we retire. But I wonder how many HSPs in this predicament are actually troubled by it? Certainly contemplating it happening gives us stress, but research shows that to be happy people need their basic needs met. Provided that those are met, money does not make much difference in level of happiness, which depends more on the ability to appreciate small daily pleasures, which we are surely very good at.
We can also usually see the other side of things and their long-term consequences. We can imagine that managing wealth can be a lot of trouble. (I know, “I should have such trouble.”) A recent survey of the very wealthy (over $25 M) found, for example, they feel their wealth is a serious obstacle to raising happy, competent children.
My guess is that HSPs do better than most with a lack of money if–again, such an important caveat–their basic needs and those of their dependents are met. We certainly suffer more than others if we do not have enough. Thus our concern about lacking enough money in the future may be worse than the fact when it happens.
If it is any comfort, I can say that I lived along with my husband and son without much money for over two decades. It was pretty easy, actually. It was largely our choice, and we were creative in finding ways to have most of what we wanted. Having had more money for the last 17 years or so has been nice. I can take a taxi when I need to instead of a bus, and drive a safer car, and not worry when some unexpected expense occurs. Otherwise, it hasn’t mattered much. Fancy places to live and vacation do not impress me. I don’t enjoy shopping anyway. As I contemplate living on a lower income when I am older, I try to remember how easy it was when I was younger. In fact, when I am older it may even be easier.
Why We Have an Advantage
First of all, if we ever had money we usually saved a large portion of it, just in case. Often we are already used to low income, having chosen to work at a job that is meaningful but not highly lucrative. Some of us have tried the reverse priorities–money over meaning–and found it didn’t work. Some have always chosen to work part time because of their sensitivity, or been forced to due to stress-related illnesses. But I think we also can understand better than others an old bit of wisdom, found from ancient China to the Amish, that simplifying life can be a blessing.
Spirituality is important to us (and solitude, and nature–the prerequisites, it seems). Every spiritual tradition recommends poverty as part of the path, because it allows us to focus on what’s important. I recently read an article by Houston Smith on a conversation he had with Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk from a contemplative order. He asked Thomas how it was to be a monk. “Well, it’s very nice,” he answered simply. Smith thought he himself would struggle with the three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Merton said, “Poverty is a snap. Chastity is more difficult, but manageable. But obedience–obedience is a bugger.” Of the three, we’re talking here only of the one that’s a snap, according to Merton. Of course, again, his order was meeting his basic needs. He did not have to be bothered with all the choices in the marketplace, with taking care of and finding a place to keep his “stuff,” or investing his money in scary places to protect it from inflation.
What We Do Need as HSPs
For HSPs, I think money is especially important for buying quiet–a quiet place to live and work, and to sleep when travelling. But this is often less about money than making wise choices. By the way, living in the country is not as quiet as you might think. There are a great many machines and barking dogs. Quiet neighborhoods seem better, at least at night, as neighbors tend to protect each other. Living in a city apartment with double pane windows can be very quiet, depending on the placement of fans, elevators, etc. Except for sirens, city noise is like white noise when soft enough. But quiet is a very serious issue. It can take a lot of time and maybe several moves to find the right place to live if your cash is limited. Having to rent because you can’t afford to buy can have some advantages.
We also need health insurance, but that is available in increasing numbers of countries. Healthy food can be inexpensive if you work at it a little. The expensive things are the unhealthy processed stuff. Entertainment isn’t so difficult. In the old days, people entertained themselves with music in their homes, reading aloud, and conversation. We can do it. Travel to see loved ones is curtailed. But for an HSP, an excuse not to travel may not be so terrible. HSPs do need downtime, but these days higher paying jobs tend to be 24/7. An hourly wage or consulting fee is more predictable. We need meaningful work, but volunteering can fill that need.
Fear and Envy
What keeps us from relaxing about having a lower income is probably envy and fear. Envy can be lessened by valuing what matters to you and looking closely at the full picture of the lives of people with more money than you. It helps that you are, I hope, used to not envying non-HSPs, who all in all appear to me to be a bit more on the materialistic side, perhaps finding it more difficult to entertain themselves with their inner thoughts.
Fear I am sure is a bigger obstacle. We do look at all possibilities when thinking about the future. (Notice I did not use the word “worry”–as my aunt says, “Worry is faith in the Devil.”) “What if there’s inflation?” “What if we need long-term care?” “Will my child be able to go to a good college?” I can’t answer those, of course, but if you look into the issues dispassionately, your fear may be reduced.
Mainly, we have to step back from our culture and join another. Because this is a consumer driven economy, we are constantly told about things we ought to want. There are no advertisements for “Enjoy Nature More–It’s Free” or “You Don’t Really Need Our Latest Model–We Made Your Model Just Fine.” Travel articles don’t say, “It was good visiting China, except that I got sick; not speaking Chinese was always frustrating; rice gets really boring; the air pollution is unbelievable; it’s hard to watch what they are doing to the environment; and I suffered from terrible jet lag, both directions.” Or, “Belize is worth seeing if you don’t mind heat, mosquitos, and poor people.” In case you have not experienced it, in underdeveloped countries you always have to be on guard, because money tends to go from who has it to who doesn’t, whether it’s people trying to sell you things, overcharge, beg, or pick your pockets. It can be very hard to see so much poverty and not feel cruel for having more. Travel writers will readily admit these “little details” in private, but not in print.
Worse, we are told about what to fear: What insurance we absolutely must have to protect us from accidents and crimes that are actually very rare, and what about the threat of ending up old and drooling in some nasty place? Is it possible that you live a life that makes these not as likely for you as for others?
We have to find our own mental antidotes, mainly by sticking to our priorities. “That’s not how I’m choosing to spend my time and money.” “I don’t really need that.” “What about the down side of that?” We can also receive support from those who have taken another path. An old book I still love for that purpose is Marsha Sinetar’s Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, which is full of stories of people who have walked off the racetrack.
“What We Have to Be Is What We Are”
Perhaps this long quote from Merton is the best advertisement for another lifestyle, from an address he gave at a conference, quoted by Houston Smith in his book, And Live Rejoicing.
So I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not depending on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity… we already are one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.
Since we as HSPs are already on the margin a bit, Merton lays out another direction for us to move, one that is always available to us in various ways. It’s a path where less is more and the more is well worth seeking.