Monday, March 2, 2009

Coping with Financial Absurdity

My husband passed me a page of USA Today, where psychiatrist Judith Orloff was spinning her book on "Emotional Freedom" into something related to the economy. That's what just about every author has to do these days--because losing money has become the great unifier for the middle and higher classes, the ones who normally buy books but won't anymore unless it has to do with finances.

If you haven't lost your job, then you've probably lost value on your house. Or your stocks went down (most middle class folk nowadays own at least some stock) or your bills went up. Our natural gas bill is a killer, because it's been darn cold this winter. Al Gore, I'm waiting for Global Warming.

So this psychiatrist was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and say what great opportunities adversity provides: "Sometimes people discover unexpected strengths; they get creative. Retired people may focus on making the best of what they have left, guarding it...[as if they have a choice??] It's an opportunity to show kindness and generosity to others in trouble."

Being upbeat used to be called positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale got a best-seller and several sequels out of it, starting with The Power of Positive Thinking, in 1952. I have fond memories of my mom reading Dr. Peale's inspirational newsletter, "Guideposts," which she kept by her bedside. There was no one more optimistic than my mom. Of course, Dr. Peale's Positive Thinking was preceded by Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) followed by the pep-talking How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1944).

But, as a mental health professional myself, I'm doomed to analyze my malaise about the demise of our family's net worth. (Albert Einstein: "The hardest thing in the world to understand is income tax") It's not that now we have less--far less--for the future. Or even that we'll have to cut back, since we're already masters of thrift.

What bothers me is the years we sacrificed in so many ways to save money--which now seems useless. I can't get back the hot afternoon when I went thirsty because I felt the cost of a bottled drink was too high. Or the evenings when instead of being together as a family, my husband was on the road earning a small speaking fee. Taught me great respect for single moms and dads, who shoulder the roles of two parents every day.

But if we (especially my husband) didn't have such a driving work ethic, we would have had more time together, closeness, and certainly more precious family memories.

That's the source of rue for me---not the loss of money, but the loss of our life, the time and the discomfort and the passing something desired by, simply to balance the budget or save for something, or put money away for the kids' college tuitions. Nothing unusual, just what people do to get ahead.

But that's what I think Americans resent with the new Obama tax plan. Even those receiving tax cuts, or low-bracket citizens receiving outright gifts from fellow taxpayers, will see their earnings--their time--buy less as inflation pushes costs for basics ever-higher.

At least Judith Orloff offers this comfort: "Money doesn't have to do with self-esteem. I've treated so many people with all the money in the world, and they feel horrible about themselves." (Now that's encouraging!)

Or perhaps she's merely echoing John Lennon and Paul McCartney's lyrics from "Can't Buy Me Love." The gist of Orloff's book, apparently, is that you shouldn't just let out your negative feelings but rather consider possible consequences before venting.

Duh. And it's also no surprise that wealth doesn't guarantee happiness. But as Sophie Tucker said, "Rich is better." Or, asks Henny Youngman, "What's the use of happiness? It can't buy you money."

Don't get me started. We might just laugh through the tears of this Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity yet. One final thought from the late, great Bob Hope: "I love to go to Washington, if only to be nearer my money."

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