Finding Out I Was Rich Broke Me

A Poor Little Rich Boy’s Thoughts on the Unearned, Abundant Gospel

This article is by Gary Benton:

About four years ago, my grandma suddenly died. She had survived her late husband — my grandpa — by two years, and had missed him terribly the whole time. We had tried to go out of our way to make time with her, knowing it was lonely being the last of her generation in our family, and we succeeded a few times. That side of my family may have scattered across the US, but we never escaped from our original, New England ways of talking around all things revealing or potentially embarrassing. Turns out, I didn’t know the half of all that was kept hush-hush.

On the second day of the family gathering we hastily arranged following my grandma’s death, my dad sat all the kids down. True to his ways, he had prepared a presentation that included an open letter, some slides, and a Powerpoint. The short of it was: Our grandparents had been very wealthy.

My father, something of a black sheep in the family who had only in adulthood been re-grafted into the family tree, was never aware of the family fortune. It turns out that my grandma had passed with about 32 million dollars to her name and we were about to be handed a chunk of it. My relatively small piece of that pie was to be disbursed over the majority of my adult life, with larger amounts roughly correlated to life milestones and smaller installments to help cover day-to-day expenses.

In short, I was more or less guaranteed a middle-class existence for the rest of my life.

That last little detail (the payment schedule) is important because it’s what broke me. If you’ve watched The Good Place, you’ll recognize the phrasing. Now, I should first acknowledge that it is absolutely gauche to complain about getting a bunch of free money, and I hope it doesn’t come across as such. This money found me living in small-town Ohio, working an entry-level job to pay for rent and diapers while I racked up bills alongside seminary credits. Obviously, it wasn’t the sudden lack of debt and the occasional freedom to eat at restaurants that posed an issue. Rather, it was what that money revealed.

It turns out my identity was deeply rooted in a narrative of American middle class achievement. To succeed in life, I needed to accomplish the following: provide for my family’s well being and comfort, help pay for my kid’s college, and save for retirement and eventual nursing care. Or generally be in control of everything from the cradle to the grave.

Of course, I had done plenty of agonizing about what career would be most fulfilling, where the best location to live might be, etc. But it all floated along on the middle-class assumptions of achievement. I needed to accomplish those things to justify my worth in the world. Except, I hadn’t accomplished them. They just happened to me. The money had been there the whole time, actually, after some fortuitous corporate merger that happened before I was born. I just never knew it.

The adventure I had set myself upon for the rest of my life had suddenly been cancelled due to unexpected, fair weather.

Just a few months before my grandma’s death and before the bequeathment announcement, I ran out of money. Like, I just didn’t have any. I was driving an hour to see an old friend and had the double realization that my gas tank was almost empty and that my next paycheck was still a few days away. The fuel light on and just halfway to my destination, the car lurched into the gas station. In my parked car I sat shaking and overcome with shame and fear. Finally, I mustered up enough courage to ask the attendant to borrow some of his personal cash. After a few painfully awkward moments, he graciously acquiesced. Driving on, I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit rise up in the form of a question: Why was it, that still small Voice asked, that I only had two words for asking for money — bum or borrow? Either I was simply borrowing the money, intent on recouping it, still in control, or I was a “bum.” A valueless person. Where was the freeness of grace in any of this?

You can probably see the connection. I had, in being rich, become the “bum” I so feared being, one who subsisted on value that I did not produce. Receiving that generous inheritance shattered my carefully protected self-image. Early on, there was talk of giving all the money away; it reminded my Dad too much of his unhappy childhood. Frequently over the years since, I have wished that that were the case so that I could go back to the arduous but comfortable life of earning my keep. But that is just a fantasy. Deep down I would still be left with the moment of realization that what I had held sacred had been revealed as arbitrary. You either need to make a living or you don’t. It’s not who you are.

This crisis of meaning has persisted. I’ve felt unstuck in time, to borrow Vonnegut’s phrasing. I’ve considered setting a new goal of becoming fantastically wealthy, but I don’t think I have it in me. I’ve gone through bouts of serious depression. I’ve rebuilt, very slowly, my ideas about what it means to have and live a life. It’s been a sort of resurrection.

Because this is where my little life experience connects with the gospel. Both involve accepting a great and sometimes unexpected gift, offered freely. The gospel — that the Kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus, that he is making all things new, that his love for us has triumphed conclusively over our sinfulness and rebellion — means that one thing is important and all the rest of it is not. We have value because God loves us. We exist because God is happy that He made us. Everything else is a practical consideration. To borrow a phrase from another novelist, nothing is real save His grace. That is obviously good news, except for people who would rather construct towers of meaning that better suit their egos (read: me. And probably most of us).

The gospel, rightfully applied, kills off those parts of us that sprung up from our old self-image — sometimes it really does feel like dying — and gives us a new kind of life in return. But we start this new life again as babies, learning taste by taste and word by word. My wife and I are learning to be generous with the money we don’t need. I’m learning to fill my head with thoughts other than how we’ll make it each week. It’s all baby steps. But the life of freedom isn’t supposed to be easier than the old life of self-determination. It’s just supposed to be better. Living in acceptance of God’s free love isn’t always more comfortable than trying to earn it. It’s just better. And it’s not an illusion that can be so easily shattered.

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One response to “Finding Out I Was Rich Broke Me”

  1. Wonderful piece, thank you
    Loved the line about the adventure cancelled by fair weather

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