“I’m better than you.” I told my wife and then stood back and waited. She was in the bathroom, getting ready for work, still in her pajamas. I wondered if she heard me, so I said it again, “I’m better than you, you know.” I ought to know better, but I love throwing these things out to her to see her reaction. She didn’t seem to notice, brushing her wet hair in the mirror. Soon, the dog made her daily venture into the bathroom to get her fluffing under the blow dryer. With head sunk low and tail between her legs, the dog offered her paw for the morning shake. I was wondering if Vandra had finally learned to ignore me, when she said, “alright...why are you better than me?” For a moment I had thought she would never walk into the set up. “I’m better than you,” I said “because I watch Oprah’s Master Class.” “Oprah doesn’t know everything” she said, launching into one of her scolding speeches. I don’t know why I find these conversations so gratifying...
Most of us spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to our peers. We select peers who represent the person we ourselves long to be. We are influenced by advertising that is carefully geared to connect with us and then create a craving for a product. We also select people or groups of people that we don’t want to be like. We might base these selections on negative stereotypes of economic class, religion, career choice, or even race and gender. We long to include ourselves with the “beautiful people” and avoid all others. In the process, we develop heuristics, or “rules of thumb” that define what we see as desirable in ourselves or others. We seek to belong to a “Master Class.”
For many of us, membership in the master class is a never ending quest. In our affluent society, the master class often includes conspicuous wealth. This presents a conundrum. How to be youthful, successful and enjoy conspicuous wealth in a modern economy that requires years of hard work to become established?
The answer is debt.
The conundrum is this. If you acquire too much debt, you risk becoming part of the undesirable crowd. For many Canadians the word bankrupt often comes with connotations of blame, failure and guilt. As we do for alcoholics, problem gamblers and drug users, we tend to write off people who are struggling with debt problems as morally flawed. They certainly do not belong to the master class. Fail to measure up to the expectations of the lady with the jars on TV; failure to stick to your debt management program, and you are somehow “bad.” You don’t measure up. You are morally weak.
It’s time to take a second look at our assumptions. We know that people who are contemplating change need social support. Failure can compound and turn into hopelessness when we write people off. If you know someone who is deeply in debt and struggling to change, it is so important to treat them with compassion and as social equals. People with debt problems are more likely to find within themselves the capacity to change when they are part of warm, accepting relationships that recognize their value regardless of their shortcomings. Professionals such as credit counsellors who work with people in these circumstances are quick to find their strengths. Just because a person relapses off of a budget does not make them a bad person. In fact, as with any behaviour, relapse, is part of the pathway to recovery. Relapse is an opportunity to learn.
The reasons why people fall into debt are varied. In many cases, people experience debt for reasons beyond their control. It’s time to stop labelling people in debt as “bad” while lumping ourselves in with the master class.