Tim and I made our very belated foray into the library — where our late fees made me reconsider the library as the “cheapest” form of books. But I think that we will just put a little more emphasis on logging library due dates into our respective calendars.
At any rate, I perused the new books section and stumbled on a title that I had read and meant to post about, The Hole We’re In.
It’s a melancholy piece, to be sure. The tone seems to shift among regret, infuriating indifference and overwhelming resignation. In short, it’s not an easy read, but it’s a poignant one. The bleakness is razor sharp, and the characters are painted in such a way that their endings feel inevitable, even as you see all the other choices that could have been made.
These are the people you left behind when you moved out of that small town. Or the best friend who won’t ever quite give up on the loser boyfriend/husband. These characters remind you that introspection is key to, not only a well-lived life, but a conscious one.
It’s easy to argue that the initial hole — there are so many they fall into — is financial. It’s why I am writing this post. The husband decides he needs a better salary and position, even though his job as principal seems to be doing fine.
He tells himself it is for his family and their future. A better salary and job will ultimately benefit everyone. Personally, I think it’s a pretty transparent ploy for external validation. Regardless, he applies to a college in a completely different area, uprooting his family for his dream.
It also means that his wife is now the sole earner for the family. With no college degree, she is thrilled to get $10 an hour. Predictably, bills add up quickly (especially with their older daughter expecting them to foot the bill for her wedding) and she has to take on a second job. Meanwhile, her husband is enjoying academia and the gravitas that “working on a PhD” brings. He’s not in any hurry to finish and seems rather willfully ignorant of the financial doom spreading shadows on their future.
The wife feels trapped, angry, guilty and plenty of other emotions. Expenses are met with despair, guilt, stress and, occasionally, the indifferent “We’re already in so deep” shrug. So it seems inevitable that a card company mistakenly sends an application for her son (who hasn’t lived there in years). We know what she’s going to do long before she admits it to herself.
Naturally, things spiral even more out of control from there, as lies feed on lies and everyone keeps things from everyone else. Rifts grow and multiply as quickly as their credit card debts do.
Based on all that, it’s hard not to assume that the hole in the title is financial. But the more I thought about these characters, the more it seems that there was a precursor even to the finances. Finances was simply one of the many threads that, when tugged, unravel this family dynamic.
The real problem here is one of confidence.
The father clearly has entitlement issues. He isn’t getting what he believes to be his due — money, respect. Those weigh more, apparently, than the overall health and happiness of his children and his marriage.
Perhaps with more self-confidence, he wouldn’t have needed the external validation. He might never have “needed” to go back to school. Or maybe he would have at least realized how destructive the choice was while there was still time to fix it.
Still, he’s not in this alone. The wife could have said no. Well, actually, she couldn’t — which is the inherent problem. It probably never occurred to her to even question his decision. She could have pointed out the many problems with his choice — a town they don’t know, uncertain job opportunities, only two years until their last child was out of the house — and they could have had a real discussion.
At the very least, she could have come clean about their financial turmoil, rather than keeping it to herself as a secret shame.
Instead, she places too little value on how she feels or what she needs. And, in the grand tradition of women, assumes she must fix all problems, regardless of who broke them — and whether they’re even fixable.
It’s sad, and it’ s a story we’ve seen play out numerous times. People make poor choices and get themselves out of it. But these characters seem to simply quit while they’re behind. They buy into the belief that this is simply how life is, that there are no other alternatives, and this is how their lives will always be.
That may be the real tragedy of the book, because it is passed on, in some form, to both daughters. The older daughter is clearly indifferent to her life — especially her fiance and her work. Still, she doesn’t look for ways out. She simply accepts it as her due. She rides the momentum life sends her way, refusing to kick or paddle against the tide.
The younger daughter, at home for most of this, gets the brunt of it. Her confidence is constantly being beaten down. As hope springs up, it is snatched away by poor choices her parents make, until she is too afraid to believe in just about anything. She is indifferent to her life — her past and her future — and doesn’t seem to realize it’s not normal. Her life has been a series of disappointments and betrayals, so she grows increasingly numb as they continue to spring up.
The real hole in this book, I think, is the one that is swallowing all hope in its characters. It is the very absence of empathy, sympathy and self-confidence that rules their lives through action and inaction. It is the way that they start the book with their heads barely above water and become increasingly submerged — and decreasingly aware of it.
It’s easy to think this piece is about the ruins of the financial hell we call debt. And, in some ways, it is. But it’s an excellent reminder that something had to get us into that destructive attitude toward spending. It could be that you overestimate your value: “I’m worth it.” Or perhaps you believe sheer force of will/arrogance can make things go as planned: “I can spend because they have to give me that raise.”
But I believe the most common reason is that same lack of confidence. You don’t think you can do better than constant debt. You don’t think you deserve better than barely making ends meet. You feel lousy and placate yourself with things in lieu of contentment.
Whatever it is, this book tells us to figure it out. Now. Before we end up in a hole ourselves.