Friday, January 25, 2013

More open honesty: You've [almost] been served

Call me Elphaba, because unfortunately this makes two stories in a row following the theme "no good deed goes unpunished." Even more unfortunately, while today's subject matter is practically the same as my previous novella, it concerns another "friend" who has taken advantage of me.

First, the backstory:

In 2011, two acquaintances from my small group at church (a husband and wife, whom I will call "H" and "W" for the sake of at least some anonymity), were fighting a court battle to retain custody of their daughter; while the details of the case are public record, they are not relevant to this discussion. Through a combination of grapevines and little birdies, I had heard that "H" and "W" needed a significant amount of cash to pay their lawyer, some of which they'd be able to borrow from their parents, and the other part, they didn't know where they'd be able to scrounge it.

Though I couldn't express myself with big fancy words when I was younger, since childhood I have held to this cockamamy notion that those who are capable of making the world a little less unfair, also carry the moral obligation to do so. This deep-seated belief informs who I am as a person. It goes beyond an Hippocratic oath of "do no harm," and instead says, "do good where you can." I'm no saint, and I'm under no illusions about that: I am not guiltless, I've transgressed my fair share against my fellow humans. But in the case of "H" and "W", I knew I had the capability of helping, and therefore, I felt, how could I not?

I called "W" and offered to loan her and "H" what amounted to my entire savings, so they could pay their lawyer. There is a deeper significance here, that until now, I've only told one other person: by offering "H" and "W" this loan, I sacrificed my own plans of moving to Los Angeles, at least for the time. I had been saving and dreaming and longing to move, and I knew that depleting my savings would erase any possibility of that for a long time. And though it tore at my heart, I chose to do so anyway, because I wanted to do Good.

Disclaimer: like in my previous post, I'm not writing this to garner a pity party. Once again, I neither need nor desire pity. The situation is what it is, we can't change the past, etc. I'm choosing to share that part of the story because the whole point of this blog post is complete, open honesty.

Disclaimer the Second: me not moving to LA at the time, is a good thing. Realistically, I'm still not ready emotionally, so having the option wrested from me (albeit by my own choices) is not something I regret.

Continuing. "W" insisted that she and "H" sign a repayment agreement. I didn't think it necessary at the time; especially because these were acquaintances from church, I never suspected that repayment would ever be an issue. But we agreed to some terms and signed the paperwork. The first two payments showed up on time, even exceeding our agreed-upon amount, and then after that everything went to hell.

Long story short, "H" was found guilty, the couple permanently lost custody of their daughter, and "W" divorced "H" and moved back home, out of state. Sucky situation all around.

At this point, the repayment checks stopped coming, and I didn't complain, because obviously they had more important things to worry about right then.

"H" finished serving his time in the workhouse, and began trying to re-build his life. "W" stopped replying to me altogether. This sets the stage for how I've regarded each of them since then.

It's not my job to judge whether "H" was or was not guilty - that was up to the court. My job was (and is) simply to be his friend. I admired that he completely owned his situation: there was no animosity toward the judge or the justice system, no visible anger toward the prosecution, etc. I mean, I would have been pissed if my life had been ruined like that.

In January 2012, I sent the following email to "H" and "W":


What happened in your lives breaks my heart. No one should have to endure what you've both endured, and especially not at our age. You are too young to have this kind of life experience.

I hate dealing with money. In our signed agreement last year, you agreed to keep me updated if you'd be unable to make the monthly repayments. I know finances are tight, but I'd like for you to start keeping me posted each month about how much you might be able to repay that month. The number is much less important than the communication.


"H" replied in under 12 hours, and over the following months continued to keep me in the loop about his job search, applications, interviews, etc. It wasn't going well, but I could tell he was trying. Every so often we'd get together for burgers, and more than once he tried to hand me a $20 bill, saying "this is all I have, but I want you to take it, because I know I owe you a lot more." I'd reject the offer, because I knew he had more important debts to pay than me; $20 one way or the other won't break the bank for me, but I knew for him it might make the difference between eating or skipping a meal. But the most important part, for me, is that he was trying, and he was communicating.

The thought has occurred to me that I've been proven a terrible judge of character more than once; maybe "H" is just giving me a sob story and I'm eating it up. But I don't believe that to be the case. I think he's human and has made mistakes and has to pay for them, but I don't believe he's deliberately trying to take advantage of me. (Dear God, please don't let me be wrong)

In April, still having no reply from "W", I emailed both parties again; once again, "H" wrote back promptly, "W" never did, and so in July, I texted "W" the following:

"W", I haven't heard from you in many months. I hope you are well, but I also need to ask for an update on your repayment plan. I know money's tight, I just need to know what the plan is. Thanks.

This time, she replied!

Hi Jeremy. I'm sorry about my lack of communication. Money is tight, and it's been tight since "H" went to the workhouse. Yes, I did move back to <home city> bc I was being evicted. As far as paying back bills, you are def on my list. being a personal loan, I want to make good on it. I just started training today for a <specific profession> job. Its only part time, but at least I finally got something. I plan to get another job as well. I don't have a plan on the amount I'm sending each month as my income will vary. Can we agree that I start paying you something monthly come August 1? You are one amazing person to have come this far and not shanked me by now. There are many reasons behind me going AWOL, but none are your fault. I'm sorry I've affected you.

I replied, reiterating that the communication is what's most important; I was grateful she'd finally replied to me, I appreciated her apology, and I became hopeful this was heading toward resolution.

Once again, I was wrong.

Months went by, no communication, no checks in the mail. In early November, I texted her again; no response.

In December, after my debacle with "A" went down, I decided I needed to pursue the issue with "W" more aggressively than I had been. On December 28, 2012, I sent her this email:

"W", I have not heard from you since a text message in July 2012; at that time you stated you would resume monthly loan repayments on August 1st, however, it's now 5 months later and I've heard no updates from you. I would like to have the entire debt off the books by May 2013 (two years after our original signed agreement).

Please communicate with me by January 15, what your new plan for repayment is.

I also Facebooked, texted, and left a voicemail, saying she needed to respond to the email by January 15. She posts on FB all the time, so there could be no excuse for not seeing my message. There was literally nothing more I could do to get her attention. Just kidding, there was one more thing: I asked a mutual friend from church to ping "W" and ask her to respond to me.

Frankly I didn't actually expect a response, but I went above and beyond in my attempts to reach "W" because, assuming she didn't reply, I intended to file small claims court papers the day after my deadline, and I wanted there to be no doubt that I'd done absolutely everything I could. A darker analogy of which I've grown fond is that you "give the person enough rope to hang themselves with." In my situation with "W", as previously with "A", I feel that I have been far more than reasonable in what I've asked when it comes to them showing some personal responsibility. If I'm missing something, please, call me out on it. (but I don't think I am)

In preparing to file the small claims paperwork, I consulted with one of my lawyers, specifically about MN Statutes 491A.01 and 543.19; I had concerns because "W" had moved out of the state, but my lawyer said that because our business was transacted in Minnesota, and because I as plaintiff still reside here, the local courts would still hear the case.

On the evening of January 13th, two days before the deadline, "W" replied to me, asking how much was still owed (I'd previously spelled this out in the April email, but whatever), followed by something all-too reminiscent of "A"'s antics (previous blog post):

Okay I see. I gotta figure out how I'm going to make this work. I will get back to you in a couple days. I am looking for employment as the restaurant is really slow til good weather hits. I've had shifts where I didn't have a single table. My <specific profession> job is super part time. I just moved in with a roommate a month ago. How're things with you?

Really? You're going to go incognito for a year, then tell me how it's important to you to "make good" on repaying the loan, then not respond to me for another five months, now give me a sob-story, and finally pretend we're still friends by asking how I'm doing? That just happened? In "W"'s defense, I wouldn't be nearly so sensitive about it, except for the fact that I just went through this game with "A" last month, and I'm in no mood for a repeat.

My reply, in which I bring us back on task:

Busy but otherwise doing well. I wish you well in your job search, however I can't stress enough the need for timely communication going forward. This evening I was literally starting to fill out paperwork for small claims court, because you haven't responded to my messages since July. I'm not trying to be a monster, but the fact is you ... [have] continued to take advantage of me (not only by not repaying the loan, but by failing to communicate any timeline or even intent to repay it). Sorry for the bluntness. I need to know what the plan is.

I think at this point it's important to re-iterate my Jurassic Park reference from my previous blog post: "I don't blame people for their mistakes. But I do ask that they [in this case, quite literally] pay for them." I had the best intentions in offering "H" and "W" a loan, and I can only assume they had the best intentions in taking it; and then life took us in a different, unexpected direction. It is tragic, but that doesn't grant cart blanche to ignore our situation, or absolve responsibility for repaying the loan, and the very least, communicating.

And so once again I find myself praying, "God, I'm sorry I'm not You."

While I waited for "W" to reply, I continued working on the small claims form. I'd filled everything in, except "W"'s address. From Facebook I knew she had moved twice since living in MN, most recently last month, but I didn't know her new address. I couldn't file the court papers (let alone serve them) without that, and it's not like I could ask her for her address now that she knew my intent, so I had to be more creative.

Having honed over many years my skills in the fine art of Facebook-stalking, I found photos of "W"'s new house on her new roommate's FB page, and in one of those photos was the house number prominently displayed on the front of the house. While I could use Google Maps to "drive" up and down the city streets looking for this house, that seemed like a huge time-suck.

I called my Public Safety officer friend from college, and one of her co-workers suggested that if I sent snail mail to "W"'s old address, with the special words "Don't Forward: Correct Address Information Requested" prominently written on the front of the letter, it would come back to me with her current forwarding address on a yellow sticker. Digging through my checking account online, I found a deposit image of one of the checks "W" had sent me a year and a half ago, which had her previous address on it. At the post office I verified the appropriate verbiage to use - they said to write "Address Service Requested" instead - and I dropped the blank letter in the mail.

Because I know the correct house number from "W"'s roommate's FB photo, once the letter came back I'd also know if the postal service gave me "W"'s most current address, or if she hasn't filed a new change of address from her most recent move. This... sort of worked. The envelope did come back a few days later with a yellow sticker, but the address was "H"'s new address. Looks like the postal service didn't bother to check the name on the envelope, just the address itself. Shoot.

Knowing I might not get a positive hit (though I'd assumed I'd at least have gotten her old address in her home state, rather than "H"'s!), my backup plan was to hire a service that could serve "W" the papers at her place of employment - again thanks to Facebook, at least I have that address.

I say "my backup plan was" because "W" finally replied to me at 9 p.m. on January 15th. (This was after I had again emailed, texted, and FB'd her that morning: "Today is the 15th. You need to let me know your plan for repayment by midnight tonight, or I will proceed with filing the forms for conciliation court. Please don't make me do this.") While "W" and I were texting, I called my parents for their counsel. Dad encouraged me that he's always in favor of giving someone another chance. And so, "W" and I negotiated a more-than-reasonable[-for-her] monthly rate. To this I added:

Yes, that [monthly amount] would be acceptable. However, you promised the same back in July / August; you need to follow through this time. I'm not trying to be a monster, I'm really not, but the no-communication / no-payment exercise has dragged on for too long.

"W" replied:

I completely agree with you. 100%. I'm really sorry I disrespected you. While moving to <home state> has been a positive step overall, I've found myself trying to change everything around me to resemble something completely opposite of what my life used to be. That included any attachments I had when "H" and I were together. I know I disconnected, and while I needed to do that to fully finish the divorce, I am so sorry that I cut you off as well. At the time, I didn't want to associate with anyone who had even a remote tie with him, and esp anyone who was friendly with him. I see the error in that now. I will keep consistent communication with you from this point.

My reply speaks for itself about my feelings on the matter:

Please do. I can understand your motivation... but whether or not I'm in contact with "H" is irrelevant to your and my financial situation. Apology accepted, conditionally, the condition being that this time around needs to go down different than July / August. Thanks for your replies, thanks for explaining.

That is the end of the play-by-play narrative, as nothing else has happened since then. Quite honestly I don't think she'll follow through; I desperately hope to be proven wrong.

I don't like what this experience, and the experience with "A" last month, have done to me. I'm scared my heart has grown colder and less compassionate as a result. What makes it worse is that, had "W" simply communicated with me and been a responsible adult, we wouldn't have had an issue (or at least not to this extreme), and I wouldn't have been forced into threatening a lawsuit. This entire affair was completely, 100% avoidable.

I've waffled whether to publish this. On one hand I fear I am dis-respecting my friends' privacy; even though I've done my best to keep them anonymous, I know some readers will know who these folks are. If that's the case, then you also know they're not bad people, it's just a bad situation. On the other hand, I hope my experiences will serve as a vicarious learning opportunity for someone reading it, and that you can avoid the time- and energy-wasting stress that my choices has wrought on me. I hope, by writing this, I might bring some Good to the world. As one of my co-workers put it, "sometimes all you can be is the bad example for someone else to learn from." If not, at least it is a deeply personal and honest journal entry for myself.

So what lesson did I learn? Never, ever loan money to anyone ever again for as long as I live.

Except I know I'll break that rule. Piggy-backing on an example my Mom gave me, if one of my nearest and dearest friends were in crisis and needed help, of course I'd do what I could, and that might mean financially.

I think the deeper lesson for me, is that if I'm going to hold onto my philosophy of "do good where you can," I need also be more discerning in the future about how I go about that. Rather than internalizing another person's problems as my own, I need to learn a healthy separation, and exercise more creative thinking, about how to help. Maybe "helping" still means financially, but maybe not.

My friend Bernadett wrote something beautiful in response to my story about "A", and I'd like to close with that:

"Do unto others as you would have them do to you". This topic has been coming up a lot in my personal life, and in the lives around me. Some people follow this golden rule, some do not. Some people are givers, some takers, most are balanced by being a little of both. When you give freely your love, time, money, advice, etc... you are extending your grace and distributing the gifts you have been given that overflow from within you unto another. This my friends, can make the world go round, and it is wonderful! However, once in a while there are people that come into our lives that manipulate our good nature and take advantage of our generosity- making us feel like fools. But what happens next is the most unfortunate thing of all. As a fool, we begin to harden our hearts, retract our trust, and fold in our hands that we used to hold out so innocently and so purely. Have the "takers" ruined us? Have they made us lose our innocence, our charity, our compassion, our consideration, and have they blocked our blessings against those in the future who might truly need and/or deserve our love, time, money, advice, friendship, etc? Do not allow yourself to be ruined. Do not live your life in regret because you did what your heart called you to do. Be proud that you were capable of giving away such a beautiful gift to someone in need. And be sorry and pray for them that they were not thankful beings. We want to become the best version of ourselves, not the worst. Let's not worry about who will stab us in the back next, let's celebrate and focus on those who have our backs now! "To thine own self be true." That is our legacy. That is how we move forward.


Anonymous said...

Have you considered only giving money away, instead of loaning it (moving forward, of course, as you can't undo the past)? It may mean that the amount you give people is less, since you're only giving away what you can afford to do without, but then you don't have to deal with repayment.

My thoughts on loans to friends boil down to never lending money that I can't afford to not get back.

Jeremy Gustafson said...

Considered, yes, but the amount I could have gifted was far too small to make a difference.

Emmy Kegler said...

Hey, Jeremy.

Obviously, I have no problems with the ethical code of "do what good you can." I think the question then becomes -- what kind of good can you do? Was good done to H and W in giving them a loan? Of course it was. But now it's put you in a painful situation, and it's given W especially an easy way to delay paying you back. I feel as if the same idea can be applied to the situation with A. You want to help; the need for money is obvious; you set up a way to meet that need, because you can. But it creates a cycle of stress and hurt for you, and guilt and/or avoidance on their part. Something done in the name of good is causing harm.

Something I've always liked about you is that you are creative, and that you have a good heart. Here's my call to you: don't go sour because of this. Don't let your heart be hardened. Let your heart be creative, instead. Find a way to help others, with what you have, but not in such a way that you're put in a repeated cycle of pain. Pray. Help them network. Remind them of their own worth. But don't put your good heart at such a risk that it can't bounce back. Like your friend Bernadett says -- be true to yourself. Be true to your good heart, but also be *good* to it.

(Signed with love from someone who, after many years in ministry, has only begun to touch the tip of the iceberg of what we seminarians call "self-care.")

Lynnea said...

I really admire how selflessly [and practically] you give to your friends. I think, often, you help people not by just picking them up but by helping them learn to do things on their own. Kudos.

You say you try to do good wherever you can. I'd caution you to remember that this includes doing good to yourself. Perhaps that can ease some of the guilt when you remember that you deserve to be taken care of too.

Dolores said...

Much I could say, but for a change I'll say little.
Your heart doesn't harden because you were taken advantage of. Your heart will grow bigger and for causes that mean more to you. You also will in time not enable as much too. I've had expensive lessons and I'm sure more to come. I did the best I could with my best intentions .. God asks no more.