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How To Care For The Financially Vulnerable

Financial vulnerability is not spoken of with the same frequency as medical vulnerability--and often, not with the same understanding or respect. It's a kind of vulnerability that's ripe for shame because it's a struggle we hide, even from those we trust.

We can learn to talk about this silent struggle with the kind of empathy that helps protect against shame. We can intentionally build relationships with people who are living in the realities of financial vulnerability and we can stand with these friends while they're struggling.

No one needs to struggle alone.

Those of us living in a season of financial vulnerability can learn to live compassionately in our own stories, too. We can find people we trust to help us sort truth from lies. We can live generously with ourselves so it's possible to grow stronger, even in the midst of real struggle.

What does it mean to be vulnerable?

Google defines vulnerable as "in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect."

Someone who is vulnerable is someone who is at risk because they are weak, injured, compromised, or immature.

The human experience is a story lived in cycles of vulnerability. We all start out immature. Life in the real world compromises each of us in some way, at one time or another. By design, we experience ongoing maturity, and cycles of recovery and restoration.

When a person is in a cycle of vulnerability they're in need of affirmation, encouragement, acceptance, attention, and protection from harm--especially the harm of shame. Compassion is a salve for those who are suffering.

What is healthy vulnerability?

Our human stories are designed to experience love, not fear when we are vulnerable. In emotionally healthy cultures, daily rhythms offer the deep satisfaction of a life cycle where the strong help the weak become the strong who help the weak.

Our historical response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of vulnerable people experiencing protection. At great expense, we've taken significant steps to protect those with weak, compromised or overtaxed immune systems. This is what love does.

What is unhealthy vulnerability?

A man who lives close by is a hard worker and a great husband and father. Last summer, he and his wife bought a new house with a backyard for their kids.

Just a few days ago, his company filed for bankruptcy and he lost his job. The timing stinks because his family's savings account took a big hit last year because of a medical emergency.

He's questioning everything. He's feeling ashamed and doesn't want to talk to anyone about his financial problems. It all feels too embarrassing.

A friend is raising two small children. She's a great mom. Her income has changed significantly in the last few years after she experienced a divorce.

She helps her sister pay for the apartment their mom lives in, so her mom can live in a safe neighborhood. Yesterday, she found out the small private school where she's been teaching won't reopen next year.

She's feeling alone and afraid. She's doesn't want to ask anyone for help because she's convinced she's worthy of judgment, not compassion. She feels stupid.

Losing one's place in the line of financial stability takes your breath away in a way that a ventilator can't restore.

As Donald Miller writes about in his book, Searching For God Knows What, we humans don't fight as hard to get to the top of the invisible human hierarchy as we do to stay away from the ones at the bottom.

What is financial vulnerability?

We're often afraid of those whose struggle is having enough money. We don't know what to say. Confused about what to do, we often avoid the issue and those who're struggling with it.

Age, lung disease, those struggling with auto-immune diseases--we know these details in the pandemic story. We feel comfortable because we know what to do with a physical virus: We can wear a mask, wash our hands, and keep our social distance.

But, none of these responses will prevent the disease of poverty or the injury of significant financial loss. And, poverty is the p-word that millions of people are afraid of right now--more than COVID-19.

Even if your friend's bank account balance will never be low enough to meet the legal guideline for "below the poverty line," a loss of 10%, 20%, 50%, 80% or more is a catastrophic diagnosis.

If you have a friend who's experienced any of these circumstances--or more than one, they may be financially vulnerable and afraid. They may be ashamed.

Experiences that may lead to financial vulnerability:

  • divorce

  • addiction recovery for yourself or a family member

  • caring for an aging parent

  • death of a spouse or parent

  • moved to a new location

  • custody battle or another legal battle

  • invested in the stock market

  • 401K investments in a company filing for bankruptcy

  • medical emergency or chronic condition

  • adoption

  • recent job loss or job change

  • works in a ministry or 501(c)3

  • works in oil & gas or another industry greatly affected in this season (retail, restaurant industry...)

  • small business owners/entrepreneurs

The bank account in crisis may not be your friends. It may be your own.

What's the solution?

I don't know. But, I do know that none of us has to struggle alone. We can learn a different response other than shame or ignor-ance.

If you're the one experiencing the real struggle, wearing an "I'm fine!" mask can make the symptoms worse, instead of better.

Pretending is exhausting. The worry that encourages you to pretend is draining, too. Be willing to be loved by someone who can help you sort lies from truth.

If having enough money is not your struggle right now, reach out to your friends who are in the middle of this financial crisis. Remind them of their real value. Your love can give them strength.

  • Stay in touch, rather than avoid. Being ignored is painful.

  • Keep the crisis in front of you, instead of between you.

  • Listen, without trying to fix things.

  • Encourage, without making light of what is truly very heavy.

  • Pray with them and for them.

  • Help them sort truth from lies. Protect them from shame.

  • Save your suggestions for a time when they ask for them.

  • Don't preach.

Build a culture of love.

Living in fear, humans don't experience maturity, recovery, and restoration from personal struggles. The constant drip of cortisol (the fear hormone) keeps us stuck in fight and flight mode and prevents us from trusting the truth that can help us build strength.

Experiencing love is experiencing healing. But we won't experience love without risking trust--no matter how much love another has for us.

Trust is the door that opens that lets love in.

Trust is built in a culture of love, not in a culture of fear. While we need people rebuilding the health care system and the economy, our primary need is for people to build trust.

Building trust is our job. All of us. Without trust, freedom is not an option. The evidence of freedom is the weak become strong and help the weak become strong.

This is the power of love.


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