More Than Money
Issue #11

Embracing Our Power

Table of Contents

“Identity and Purpose”

Despite the undeniable connection between money and power, many of us find that personal power does not come easily at all. This is especially true if we are following in the large footsteps of much-touted ancestors, or if our money is tightly bound by parental control. To find a path that is right for who we are, we sometimes need to separate from our families' expectations and from other societal pressures attempting to mold us. Below are a few stories of individuals who are forging their own identities amidst the sometimes overwhelming influence of wealth.

One Small Canvas

If I wanted to get started as an artist in oil paints, what would I need? A few canvasses, a dozen small tubes of colors, two or three brushes, right? What if, instead, huge trucks each carrying thousands of gallons of paint came roaring down my street and stopped in front of my house--three truck loads of sunflower yellow, nine truck loads of cobalt blue... do I have more power to become a painter, or less?

Dealing with my inheritance has been like spending a decade directing trucks of paint, showing them where to park, figuring out how to unload them. When all I've ever wanted is to paint the one small canvas of my true self, my real life.

--Sally B.

Forest Green

Throughout two decades of dealing with wealth, my experience has been this: whenever my money has felt larger than my own sense of self and purpose, it has undermined my power; when my self-esteem and life purpose have been bigger than my money, then my wealth has been a most welcome tool.

I grew up in South Carolina where my family name was a household word. I hated being set apart by my wealth and in college I went to absurd lengths to avoid "revealing my pedigree." When I received my inheritance at age 21, it came with my parents' message of fear: "Watch out. There's power in this that can ruin your life." I ended up supporting myself with my money, yet felt furtive about it.

I spent most of the 70's pursuing spiritual goals, and eventually turned to face the heritage I had tried so hard to escape. I soon found my way to a heretofore obscure family investment--a forest land ownership in Maine. To my amazement, I discovered that the company's commitment to long-term financial growth had translated into long-term management of our forest holdings. (Previously, I had joked that the only thing "green" about my patriarchs is that green is the color of their favorite currency.)

I wanted to get involved in the company management to better understand this apparently happy marriage between business and the environment. Because my father is strongly opposed to nepotism, I had to fight hard to justify a role for myself in the company. I now see that joining our business was a personal turning point: I was embracing work that called to me and committing to it.

Another turning point was joining the Threshold Foundation, a community of peers where, for the first time in my life, having money was irrelevant because we all had it. Finally I could explore with others the questions "Who am I? What matters in life?" without unspoken judgments about my wealth getting in the way. Threshold was like a greenhouse where my trust in my identity and values apart from my money started to bloom. This gave me the courage to be myself in other parts of my life, building a reinforcing loop of experimentation and positive feedback.

My position within the family company enabled me to take part in statewide public policy debates around forestry issues. I worked with the environmental and forest landowner communities to broker Maine's first Forest Practices Act in 1989. This landmark legislation restricted landowners' ability to practice extensive clearcutting in the Maine woods.

I recently co-founded a non-profit effort that seeks to build public understanding around ecological and economic issues before they erupt. We have brought over a hundred people into constructive dialogue, including commercial forest landowners, scientists, conservationists--every sector that has an interest in these forests. By helping people build common ground instead of honing their latest attack rhetoric, we believe political and biological crises (like those that characterized the spotted owl debates in the Pacific Northwest) can be avoided.

My relationships inside the timber industry and the environmental movement--as well as listening and leadership skills honed in Threshold--have been instrumental in these successes. Now in the fullness of middle age, I feel blessed to have cultivated my spiritual values and used my family heritage to express them in the world.

- anonymous author

Double-edged Sword

My father believed that you had to first make money by being a hard-ass businessman. Only then could you use your wealth to support good causes--even if that meant that you made your money from Philip Morris and then donated it to the American Cancer Society.

In college I was always trying to change my father and make him wrong for the way he earned his money. At the urging of my college mentors I decided to stop my criticism and instead try to let my father be persuaded by my own path to success. When I made over a million dollars from the sale of a socially responsible company I started, my father was indeed proud of me for succeeding without compromising my values. From that day on he has became more accepting of socially responsible investments (albeit begrudgingly).

Today I feel fairly powerful in my chosen field, but I still feel controlled by my need for my father's approval, especially in situations where he is giving money to me. I am afraid that if I piss off either my father or my mother, they might stop letting me guide the family foundation's investments towards socially responsible companies. I also fear it could impact my inheritance. I've been working hard to change these dynamics and improve relationships in my family--and I'm humbled by how long changes take.

--Ned D.

Held Prisoner

People say money is power. Power can be used in all kinds of ways: to create, support, nurture,... or control and to hurt. For the past twenty-five years I have been struggling against the powerful legal and financial mechanisms my father put in place to control me--even after his death--until the day I die.

I was twenty-eight when the trust papers arrived in the mail. My father told me where to sign, and I did without even reading the text. (I was brought up not to ask questions!) Not until years later did I discover that I had no access to the principal and that I could never dissolve the trust. The trust officers, who march to my father's drummer even now that he is dead, won't invest my capital according to my wishes, and I can't fire them because legally they don't work for me (even though they take a big cut of my income).

This gift of wealth is like a bad dream. My money is not mine, except for the income I receive. I can never use the principal, and I have no voice in how it is invested. I will forever be treated like a child who is not capable of making her own financial decisions.

--Barbara B.

Creating My Own Voice

John Robbins is the author of the international best-seller Diet for a New America and the founder of EarthSave, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting more healthful and environmentally-sound food choices.

From childhood on it was expected that I would someday take over and run what has become the world's largest ice cream company--Baskin-Robbins. The ice cream cone shaped swimming pool in the backyard of the house in which I lived was a symbol of the success awaiting me.

Some people are able to embrace their wealth and not lose themselves. But for me, it was essential that I turn down that entire life. I remember telling my dad that developing a 32nd flavor just didn't feel like an adequate goal for my life, especially given the critical state of the world! My wife and I went to homestead in British Colombia (on $500/year), and later, through writing and activism, we created work that was both economically and spiritually sustaining.

Few children of the very wealthy people I have known are happy. The power of their money always seemed to become greater than the power they were able to summon within themselves. Those of us who are happy have had to calm down first and to disassociate from the dominant belief systems in our families and our culture. Only after giving up all expectation or hope to be involved with my family's wealth was I able to tune into that deeper language of my soul--into the poetry of my being, into the rhythm and cadence and purpose of my life.

--John Robbins

(Portions excerpted with permission from Diet for a New America , Stillpoint Publishing, 1987.)


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