November 28, 2009

Telling Stories

The rules for Buddhist monks and nuns, at least in much of what I've heard, forbid them from handling money. They were not allowed to even touch it, let alone use it, and thus spent much of their time begging for their bread. Later, once Buddhist clergy began to own property, monasteries had laypeople to handle money for them or the rules were relaxed. It was the fact that the great monasteries of Sri Lanka were feudal landholders in their own right which allowed them to survive for so long, through any number of dynastic upheavals, barbarian invasions, and religious schisms. Of course, they also contributed to more than a few of these themselves, different sects supporting different kings when it came time for succession, whomever they thought might benefit them most. Tangible wealth is definitely a two-edged sword.

My sword caught up with me today, in the form of a hand-delivered summons from the county court on behalf of one of my two defaulted credit cards. I honestly hoped they would dither for another year or two, by which time I might be in a position to settle with them. As I continued with my day, the story wound itself out in my head. Why I had the credit cards, how I managed to wrack them up, how I couldn't pay them, what I might say to the attorney when I call on Monday, as per the summons. As if I didn't know all of that already? I was telling the story in order to reassure myself, as you might tell a kid a fairy tale to distract her from the scary thunderstorm right outside the window.

But I'm not a little kid. We tell ourselves these stories all the time, and as we tell them over and over we begin to believe them, twisting our conceptual thoughts, creating habitual patterns, changing our perception of the world until we're innocent Little Red and the credit cards are evil Big Bad.

Have you ever met that person? The one who, no matter what happens, it's not their fault? They can come up with a story, right on the fly, from the moment they run into your back bumper, about how it's not their fault. Half the time, we are that person. Maybe we tell the story about how it's not our fault, or how we're not afraid, or how we're so smart, so cool, so strong. We're the hero of our own epic poem.

Of course, sometimes we also tell the dark stories. We tell stories about how our life sucks and it's not fair how people don't feel sorry for us. We tell ourselves we're stupid or worthless or fat, dark and twisted thoughts fit to do Poe proud. But they're all just stories. Good or bad, they're all just words we make up in our heads.

When we were little we used to chant "Sticks and stones..." But words can hurt us, our own words more than anyone else's, especially the ones we never voice. They cloud our perceptions, prevent us from seeing the world as it is, build up our ego and let it run free.

So today when I was starting my story, letting myself get all worked up, fearful and threatened, I felt myself falling into that habitual pattern and I cut it off. I cut it out. Of course, then I just started telling myself some other story, but I managed to disconnect that one as well. Instead I thought about how monks weren't allowed to handle money, and if anything about that teaching could be useful to me now, even though I can't live by that stricture (or, more accurately, choose not to).

I feel better than I would have under other circumstances. A couple of years ago a summons like that would have sent me into a tailspin for the rest of the day, or days. Today, I thanked the nice man with the five-pointed star on his belt who delivered it, read it top to bottom, and set it front and center on my desk so I'll remember to make that call come Monday. I don't need the story. And I don't need the other stories to distract me. (Really, I don't! Go away!)

I'm still sad and that habit is still lingering in the back of my mind, ready to pounce, but, you know, I have better things to do than tell myself stories all the time.


Anonymous said...

Your lawyer will probably tell you this anyway, but you have a couple of choices:
1) Declare bankruptcy, which is an extreme measure for this situation and might cause more damage than it fixes, or
2) Offer to set up a payment schedule, stick to it, and pay the thing off.

If you don't offer them some form of payment, they WILL come after any assets that you own and they WILL get them because they're legally entitled to them. Forestall all that by offering a payment schedule.
Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but I've seen this situation before in my line of work. Good luck.

Monica said...

I have consulted a lawyer and discussed bankruptcy, for which I am a good candidate, but they are legitimate debts, so I don't want to welsh. I have also been advised that I am collection-proof, since I have no assets for them to take. I don't even make enough for them to be able to garnish my wages. I tried to negotiate a payment schedule when I first defaulted, but they wouldn't make a deal I could manage. Thanks for the advice though. I'm going to see if I can get them to settle for a partial repayment, enough to cover the principal but not all the fees. We'll see. Wish me luck!

John said...

I look at credit card companies as an opponent in a game of skill. They charge late fees, raise your interest rate, tempt you with access checks, and generally act like schmucks. You have things you can do like cancel your account, transfer your balance to another bank, and use the nuclear option (chapter 7 bankruptcy). If bankruptcy is the best option for you, then don't worry about Chase, or Citibank, or whomever, just do it and declare yourself the victor in the game.