I have a love-hate relationship with Thanksgiving. On one hand, it’s one of the few times a year to spend quality time with loved ones. If you’re lucky, you’ll be joined by that “special guest” who makes the holiday interesting like a new girlfriend, a baby or your uncle’s latest wife. We all have one. On the other hand, it’s the holiday quintessence of same-shit-different-day.
Same food, same jokes, same stories, same explanations to the same relatives of the same thing you said last year. You know the drill. For me, it takes a lot for a Thanksgiving to stand out over the years but one in particular has left a mark on me til this day.
Years ago, in between passing the rice and peas and curry goat [#jamaicans] we somehow slipped into a conversation about giving money to your parents because “they needed it“. Surprisingly, I didn’t start the conversation but played the background with my ears perked because I was curious to see how the rest of the table felt about this not-so hypothetical situation.
As you can imagine, it didn’t go unnoticed that I was uncharacteristically mute on the topic and was soon forced to show my hand. “So if you’re Mom asked you for $100 you would just give it to her…right? There was clearly a belief that I was among the legions of people who loved their Mom so much that I could never say no to her. That because I was “successful” and seemingly could afford it, I wouldn’t think twice about giving her money. In between my sip of rum punch I casually responded…
“I mean…it depends. What does she need it for”?
Needless to say, the collective harmonious patois-infused “hell-naw” I received from just about everyone at the table was felt loud and clear. You would’ve thought I said “Bob Marley was the second greatest musician to come from Jamaica…behind Shaggy“!
What followed was twenty minutes of religion infused lecture on the difficulties of pregnancy, the challenges of single-motherhood, giving carte-blanche respect for elders and the importance of family over everything. I was getting hit from all angles. They spoke as if the value and nuance of any of these concepts were unfamiliar to me. Even worse, I felt in that moment, I was somehow representative of all that went wrong with my entire generation; where they [as elders and wiser extended family members] had somehow dropped the ball and nurtured an educated but lost child that was abandoning his culture and value systems.
This was a crossroad. My response would either reflect the people who made bold decisions and sacrifices to get me where I am, or it would abide by what I now believed to be true. A point of view based on decades worth of observations and seemingly endless signs of struggle spread across every branch of my family tree. This was a choice between math and Mom.
To me, blindly saying “sure I’d give it to her” was sending a signal to the table that despite knowing better, I would always err on the side of family versus rational decision making. If the situation were ‘tweaked’ and we were discussing whether I would offer a slice of cake to my diabetic uncle, a cigarette to my cancer-stricken aunt or a PB&J to my niece with a peanut allergy simply because they wanted it; would I have received a similar response? Would I be disloyal or ungrateful then? No, poor financial management isn’t life-threatening; but it does threaten livelihoods.
It became clear that this was not about money.
It was also not about my mother who has experienced her fair share of struggle as a woman, immigrant and single parent. Her ability to overcome hardships is second to none but to expect her to have also mastered debt and personal finance in a rapidly changing world along the way is borderline unreasonable. Like many, she’s left a trail of financial lowlights along the way; a natural byproduct of “doing what you have to do” in America.
It certainly wasn’t about the value of $100 then or the future value of $100 invested once you account for compounding interest and inflation. For everyone else at the table, it was about acknowledging the supreme forces that shaped our identity; the code that makes us who we are. It was about God, Religion, Family, Respect.
But for me, it was about actually taking the advice those same people embedded in me; fully embodying the dreams they sacrificed their lives for and deciding to change for the better. It was about recognizing that culture has a direct influence on your personal goals to the degree you are willing to follow the norms it dictates. It was about knowing that life-changing breakthroughs often come on the other side of conflicts.
I have few financial mentors in my life. Most people I know are the living embodiment of “getting by”, “taking it one day at a time”or any of the other sayings on the long list of clichès that come after asking “what’s good”? That Thanksgiving, I learned that even if we weren’t talking about money; but were pursuing a healthier lifestyle or chasing a dream, its critical to be mindful of the role culture plays on your decision making. It was a lesson and reminder that sometimes what got you to where you are, won’t get you where you want to go. That sometimes, you have to take a long hard look at yourself and make some really really tough decisions. And sometimes, in order to rise, you have to be willing to let go, because what was once your foundation can quickly become your quicksand.