The debt diet: What’s trust got to do with it?

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

Some consider her the icon of the age and worship at her shrine. Others find her to be oppressively present. Oprah Winfrey is obviously an impressive force in promoting ideas, books and people. 

One of her more recent ventures was a series that confronted the topic of a debt-ridden people and the impact this raging disease has had on society. The professionals Winfrey engaged as presenters challenged the debtors—and by extension all of us—to change lifestyles. 

Those who are eaten alive by debt were confronted with the fact they are leasing life, not living it. The reality is it is not solely about dollars and consumerism. It is more about the actuality that debt creates a facade. It exposes our living a lie. It reminds debtors they have not lost control. They were out-of-control from the onset of their choices.

We are facing a spiritual crisis, a deep hunger, a sacred wound that cannot and will not be satisfied with material things. The great question that is begged remains. “Am I enough?” A “dis-eased” response covers up the degree of pain that leads to an equal degree of spending. It becomes an inauthentic, self-soothing activity that avoids authentic spirituality. It skirts the fact money problems are a leading cause of divorce in the United States. 

As the television program demonstrated, we are born whole and free. Enslavement to addictive behaviors is learned. Withdrawal from wholesomeness and holiness is learned. Absence from life is the insidious result. It is an insidiously slippery slope into unconscious living. This is the most perturbing illusion of all. 

Often those in debt present an image of wealth rather than impoverishment. They are viewed as people who “have it all together” when they are falling apart, literally and figuratively. Family, friends and neighbors are unaware of the dilemma because the “debtors” are themselves in denial. What began as a tiny hole soon escalated into a deep chasm. The only way out is through.

The only way through is to come clean. Admit the presence of all the accumulated stuff that has been allowed to invade their lives. Recognize the fact material things are not permanent and cannot fill spiritual voids. They do not and cannot substitute for relationship and friendship. They will never allow us to distinguish wants from needs. There will always be a smokescreen that prevents a view of spending that is a symptom, not the disease. 

Crucial to the process of this discovery is trust. Before one can address the illness of excess spending, before one can begin a debt diet, there has to be trust. The trust factor, in my view, is imperative. 

It is trust on many levels. Trust that the enslavement has not become so entrenched that it has entwined itself into the being of the debtor. Trust that less is really more. Trust in the power of divine assistance. Trust that one’s own self is good—good enough for God and, by extension, good enough for ourselves and others. Trusting, one can step into the frightening demands of debt dieting.

In her five-week segment, Oprah Winfrey’s professionals gained the trust of their clients and their clients reciprocated with fiscal confidence. It was not easy for them. At first, they reacted vehemently to the visible slashing of expenditures. The concrete examples of inordinate spending were seen but not accepted. Surprisingly, they came as a shock. These adults were completely unaware of the degree of their indebtedness. They had no idea how much it was costing them, in every aspect of life. First reactions, across the board, were negative: “I can’t do that.” “We can’t cut that out.” Then came the really emotional hook, “We can’t do that to our children.”

Slowly, the reality they were living a lie took hold. Slowly, all parties could see the damage inflicted upon them by irresponsible, unconscious living. Slowly, they built trust in themselves: husbands with wives, wives with husbands, parents with children and children with parents. They learned what they could do, rather than what they felt was impossible to accomplish, or what they were being denied.

With trust, their worst fears fell apart. Their families could do with less. Their children would not be negatively affected. On the contrary, there was a positive influence. The entire family discovered that “no” is not a naughty word and “yes” is not always a positive one.

We could view the programs as active participants, folks who are similarly addicted. We might sit back, smugly noting that we are not in that category. We might dismiss the entire program as another stab at getting high ratings. Or, we could examine our own degree of indebtedness, our own measure of trust, our own methods of denial and avoidance of difficult issues.

If the heart of the matter centers on unconscious living, how are we addressing our personal consciousness, our awareness of what it means to be truly alive? If living in debt means living a lie, creating a facade, in what ways are we the great pretenders? If the degree of spending is equal to the degree of pain we are choosing to avoid, where are we on the scale of avoidance?

The questions are challenging. They dare us to look closely at who we are. They ask us to risk dialogue with folks who are not our mirror images, people who will cause us to take a second look at our choices, decisions, action and inaction. 

The questions bring us face-to-face with our authenticity. Are we real or imposters? Are we willing to admit our need for spirituality? Are we willing to change our lives and be transformed from enslavement to freedom?

The debt diet is not only for credit card holders. The debt diet is a good idea for all of us who have slipped into unconscious living, who are leasing life not living it. Let’s come clean with all the stuff we have accumulated, stuff that is holding us hostage from deeply spiritual living.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. Reach her at grammistfran@gmail.com.