Our economic style is a natural expression of who we are. Hoarder. Spender. Philanthropist. Cheapskate. Gambler. Shopaholic. For richer or for poorer, your money is a measure of how you see yourself. For many of us now struck by financial woes, our relationship to money may be changing.
Perhaps, it went something like this: The job you loved to hate…”poof” and with it the perfect getaway, gone. As for your 401(k), there’s that misty cabaret song “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have Now?” Maybe you lost something tangible or maybe just the fantasy of something. Whether it was a house made of stone or one built on the sands of your imagination, losing something changes things. Maybe you mourn the sense of confidence or safety that a certain amount of wealth inspired. You may tell yourself that its absence can make room for new things, but you’d prefer 25 cents on the dollar. Whatever your sense of loss is, chances are you are re-evaluating your own “fundamentals” and trying to figure out how to grow your green – and nurture yourself – more wisely.
Now is a good time to reflect on the emotional currency of your financial attachments. Some folks are learning to let go, others to fight back, while others simply panic. Rightly or wrongly, the value of money is so entwined with notions of love, security, and worth that it is difficult to separate. And yet the present is demanding that we make do with less and inviting us to find a way to make the most of it.
While this is not The Great Depression, it may feel like it to people who have never lived through it. Irving Weinstein, Ph.D., a New York psychologist who grew up during the Great Depression, sees this as yet another wave (albeit severe) in the economic cycle. He’s disturbed that the media is portraying this downturn as an “epidemic.” That said, he suggests that people try to be realistic about how they have been affected and take steps to “immunize” themselves financially and emotionally. As he puts it, there is a constant “menu of stressors” which can occur at any time (loss of a loved one, divorce, illness). This economic dip is one more item on the menu, but it is not the menu. In Dr. Weinstein’s office suite, there is an illustration of Charlie Chaplin as “The Little Tramp” character. The caption reads, “Downtrodden, But Irrepressibly Optimistic.” Dr. Weinstein talks about how people identify with the victimized Tramp character who stood up to towering bullies and showed audiences there was a way in which the scrappy “little guy” could hold on to his integrity and not just do the right thing – but do the nobler deed. He references the movie City Lights in which The Tramp secures a much-needed penny on the floor, but gives it to the poor blind girl who needs it even more. In giving it to her, he gives himself-and the audience-a certain faith in humanity.
So while there may be an epidemic of fear, it may be counterbalanced by one of hope.
On matters of spirit and change, The Reverend Thomas Synan of The Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City, has some words of wisdom. While not discounting the financial hardship many face, he sees the current climate as offering “spiritual opportunities.” On this subject he notes, “Money is only worth the value we give it. Now is not the time to mourn its loss of value. It is in times like these that we prioritize properly and realize what is of great value – not wealth or possessions – but family, friends, a strong supportive community. In times of overabundance, these things can be lost.” While people may need to cut back on what they can give charitably, other ways of giving arise. While our culture prizes money for the independence it may offer, there is also a way in which tough times can bring people closer.
A greater sense of empathy and financial interdependence can arise. The Reverend Synan relates a story told to him by an acquaintance of how, during The Great Depression, “neighbors looked out for each other and even paid each other’s bills.” Identity became more collective and less individualistic. While schadenfreude – “delighting in the misery of others”-no doubt existed, there was a strong sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Counting your blessings – not your losses – can add to an enhanced appreciation of life.
On the other hand, Dr. Faith Bethelard, a Manhattan-based psychologist, emphasizes how mourning a financial loss need not be something without its blessings. “Within a place of emptiness, or rather ‘spaciousness-new growth can be entertained.” Dr. Bethelard notes, “For many people who may have planned on retirement (with a certain degree of ambivalence and even dread), they may be energized by staying employed. They want to stay in the game. This economic downturn may be making a place for elders in the work force.” While ostensibly people are trying to recoup their losses, early baby boomers don’t want the old retirement model. She notes, “Previous generations didn’t have a language for things like the spa – you worked hard then you retired. Now people know how to have ‘spa moments’ in their day.” She mentions the importance of moments of “mindfulness” where one can check out from one’s ambition. Maybe that meditative “spa moment” is as simple as washing one’s hands and tuning into the feel of the soap and the warm water. Certainly, this is not the same as a blissed-out 90-minute deep tissue massage, but in its own way perhaps more meaningful because we are creating it spontaneously in the mix of a workday. On exploring the value of these kinds of moments, Bethelard explains, “As one more closely observes inner reality, one finds that happiness is not exclusively a quality brought about by a change in outer circumstances, but rather happiness often starts with loosening and releasing attachment to thoughts, predispositions, and ‘scripts.’”
So it could be time to change your financial script. We’ve been told that money can’t buy happiness – and while losing it doesn’t either-perhaps the experience of loss can help us pay more attention to life’s little moments and to small acts of kindness.
And for that we may be all the richer.
Juliet Heeg, LCSW, a frequent contributor to Organic Spa Magazine, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.
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