More Than Money
Issue #30

When Differences Divide

Table of Contents

“Choosing Not to Judge”

At a young age, my grandfather discovered that he had inherited enough money to survive without having to work. He was deeply ambivalent about his inheritance and what people would think of him, and he passed this ambivalence on to both his children and grandchildren. Despite his own long career working (without receiving an income) and his mixed feelings about inheriting, my grandfather set up trusts for all of his grandchildren, before any of us were born.

By the time I became aware of my inheritance, my older cousins and siblings (there are 17 of us) had been wrestling for years with issues that often accompany inherited wealth, such as feelings of guilt and isolation or decisions about how much to give away or share with spouses. In order to break the family silence around these issues, many of the grandchildren decided to gather together and speak about our struggles. Our silence had arisen from a sense of etiquette and humility, but also from the fear of what others would think—both within the family and outside it.

At the gathering, we realized that we had much in common. For example, our grandparents had believed strongly in philanthropy. They made a habit of giving away at least one-third of their income each year. This habit of philanthropy has extended into the succeeding generations; the children and grandchildren are involved in public service and philanthropy, locally as well as internationally. We also discovered that there were big family messages—largely unspoken—that had been passed down to all the cousins: avoid conspicuous consumption, give anonymously, and never spend capital. Another taboo was naming numbers, as in how much money one has, spends, or gives away. In fact, speaking of our money at all just wasn't done. My siblings and I didn't even learn of our inheritance until we were 18, when the first of our graduated trusts arrived. At the gathering, when one of us would give voice to a message we had received in our family, other cousins would often say, "Oh yeah, we got that too." It was astonishing. My grandfather had been dead for 20 years, yet these messages had come down to the entire third generation. Much of each weekend gathering was spent laughing and talking about these shared values and experiences, which, until the discussion, we did not know we had in common.

Despite these commonalities, there were, and still are, major differences, as there had been in our parents' generation —which had experienced considerable family tension around spending "lavishly" or "simply." Hearing the range of views among us, and just knowing that various family members we re making different choices, was helpful to all of us, including our partners. We could see that we were not alone. We tried to share in a non-critical way.We saw that being judgmental of each other was not going to help. Each person simply said, "This is what has worked for me." This was an essential step to increasing sharing. Instead of putting ideas on the table in a manner that suggested, "This is the only and correct way," people simply related their own experiences.

Despite the value of each gathering, it is not as though there has ever been a sudden opening of the floodgates and then we all felt wonderful. All of us continue to struggle in various ways with how to deal with inherited wealth. The progress towards internal peace remains slow and unsteady at times, but persistent.

Personally, it has taken me a lot of work to overcome the fear of judgment (it persists) and also to discard some of the familial taboos. Slowly, over time, I have learned that I can put these things on the table with my cousins and siblings. I have found that the more I can be open and devoid of judgment, and overcome my own fears of being judged, the better. For example, at one point, I became tired of wrestling with the worries of naming numbers—the fear that someone will judge me for how much I have, or make, or give away. I decided I could get rid of that fear in myself, and perhaps help a cousin of mine who was struggling with how much of his money to give away, so I said to myself, "I'm going to name some numbers and tell him the percentages I give away. I am not going to worry about what he will think." He was very happy with the conversation.

I have been helped to let go of my judgments by participation in The Life Training Program (www.lifetraining.org), which helps people uncover the beliefs they hold about themselves, others, and the world around them. One thing it has helped clarify for me is that the fear of judgment is often rooted in one's own tendency to be critical of others. But judging others can be a tough habit to break because of a theoretical payoff. After all, when I judge others, I can tell myself that I am better than they are, and thus bolster my self-image. This was true for me in my relationship with one of my sisters. I used to like to live like a pauper and I had a sister who spent more openly than I did. I made a lot of negative judgments of her in my own head. Instead of talking openly to her about my struggles with money, my comments to her were designed to prove to her that I was virtuous. Not surprisingly, this did little to facilitate a healthy, enjoyable relationship between us.

One of the most poisonous aspects of judging is that the more I judge myself, the easier it is to be critical of others. If I'm happy with myself, it's easier to extend acceptance to others. I try to look at what in myself is leading me to judge others, knowing that the cost of judging is in fact far greater than the benefit, though in the moment the benefit seems too valuable to give up. I have found that a lot of family tensions are born of judgments, not only of others but of myself. It is by no means easy, but dropping judgments has gone a long way in ending the isolation our family has felt as a result of our privilege.


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