Family game time used to mean Go Fish, then Sorry!, then Rummy, and now, yes, poker. So several weeks ago, my 14 year old daughter and my 16 year old son helped me muddle my way through what beats what as my husband just laughed at me. I was doing all right as long as we played with chips, but then someone had the audacity to suggest we switch to using coins. Real money, that is. From our own individual pockets. $2.50, to be exact. All of a sudden, my stomach hurt. I agreed, reluctantly, hesitating before each ante. They all laughed at me – Not with me, mind you, but at me. “Mom, it’s $2.50! You are acting like we’re playing with $250!” “Yes, but….” I spluttered. “That’s almost a Rita’s Ice!”
Let’s take a look at what was going on inside my brain – causing my stomach to hurt at the mere thought of tossing a mere $2.50 away. We have to go back 3 generations, to my great-grandfather, who lost everything in the Depression. His son John, my grandfather, was not able to pursue his college dream of eventually earning a PhD in English Literature, but had to get a job ASAP. However that Schacht Family treated money before, now it was a precious commodity, never enough, anxiety-producing, could be lost at any moment. Mind you, no one landed on the street or in a flop house or went hungry, but harrowing and life-changing it was.
Fast forward to John’s son, my father Bob, who, family legend holds, would negotiate his allowance in either US dollars or Canadian dollars on summer vacations up north, depending on the exchange rate. I believe the loving term we used growing up was “tightwad.” And now, here I am, Bob’s oldest, sitting around our kitchen table with my own kids, anxious about losing my $2.50 in a poker game. Is it nature? Or is it nurture? Well, it’s more complicated than that.
Our experiences do, apparently, change our genes. Our DNA is not fixed and unchanging as previously thought. Our genes can be turned “on” or “off,” and then passed down to the next generation in that “on” or “off” state. It’s called epi-genetics, and wow, does that change how we see ourselves and our ancestors. This does not mean that DNA is destiny; we’re also discovering just how plastic and malleable the brain is throughout our entire lives. And it is not so simple to say that the Great Depression turned on the “tightwad” gene in my great-grandfather, who passed it to my grandfather, who passed it to my dad, who passed it to me. Nor is it 100% learned behavior (read: anxiety about money.) It’s a complex relationship between our genetics that determine our eye color, and perhaps influence our personalities; and the experiences we have in this life. Too complex for us to tease apart at this point.
But I love that I am not prisoner to my ancestors’ money anxieties, even if I share their proclivities. I just have to be mindful of how it manifests, and practice staying calm. Poker, anyone?