When Times Are Tough confronts the tough economic times in which we live with understanding, humour, clinical compassion, common-sense and a wealth of imaginative ideas on how to make life rich in recessionary times. It is a reassuring voice of practical wisdom and common sense.
Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist and Irish Times columnist, author and broadcaster. She has been a weekly radio contributor to Today with Pat Kenny (2000-2003), the transcripts of which, together with a selection of her Irish Times columns, were published in a collection entitled Living Our Times in 2007. Other radio series and books have included Nervous Breakdown (1994), The Stress Files (1997), On Your Marks (1999) and Surviving The Leaving Cert (2002). Selections from her Time-Out Irish Times column and Mindtime, her weekly psychology series on RTE Radio One’s Drivetime with Mary Wilson, are reproduced in this volume. She is a registered psychologist, registered family therapist and supervisor, and a registered member of the European Association for Psychotherapy.
79 pp. Veritas Publications. to purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie
1. In Praise of the Champagne Flute
There are a number of symbols of fine living, of indulgence, of extravagance, even of decadence. Principal amongst these must be the champagne flute. Its crafted curvature, its delicate stem, its sensuous lip and its elongated elegance are unique. The flute is a work of art. It is lovely to hold, a delight to behold, and it contains an elixir, the name alone of which ignites a sense of occasion, of celebration and of joy.
There is no ambivalence about a glass of champagne. When the flute appears, good things are happening and they are to be noted and toasted with a drink and a clink and an appreciation of life.
The flute has one purpose only. It accommodates only one potion. It is shaped for that purpose and none other. It cannot facilitate a glass of milk, would make nonsense of the froth on a pint, would destroy a brandy and intimidate a beer. It would confound the temperature of wine and would be insulted by a soda. It would refuse a sherry, and while it might collude with a cocktail to have it delivered to its own elegant glass, it must secretly disdain the uncouth accoutrements that bedeck that beverage. The flute is understated. That is its strength.
The flute will not join glassware in a dishwasher. It will not occupy a cramped cupboard. It will not jostle for room. It stands alone, elegantly and eloquently proclaiming its special status in its unique space.
The flute knows its place and places itself at the centre of celebration. It is not intended to be utilitarian and would reject such functionality. It is not designed for the downing of alcohol, but for raising the tone of life, and it knows it.
The flute is not greedy. It merely requires that it be half-filled. Excess is anathema to its sensibility. It does not want loud popping of corks or excessive bubbles. It does not contain a drink to be guzzled. The delicacy of its frame discourages that. It does not condone overindulgence. Its contents are to be savoured. Its temperature is to be regulated. Its use judicious but joyful. Its secret lies in the capacity of a little to inebriate.
The flute’s power is psychological as much as physiological. It is symbolic. That is what makes the bringing forth of flutes portentous. There is palaver about it, but it does not disappoint. The flute may be paraded but there is purpose in doing so, whether one is congratulating, or sharing, consoling or celebrating, with family or friends. It says we are together. It says we will mark this time. It says that just for now all the ordinary in life is suspended and what is enjoyable is to be entertained. Without the flute, champagne would be insignificant. Its taste would be destroyed in a tumbler. The flute is part of the felicity.
It would be wrong to think that the flute is inappropriate in times of recession. While it may be made of finest iridescent crystal, it can equally be fashioned of sterner stuff without sacrificing the essence of its shape and itself. Nor does it require frequent use or even extravagant replenishment when it is used. That is its advantage.
The flute can wait. It charges nothing for waiting but encourages by its presence. That presence is a promise. The flute can be unfilled without its purpose being unfulfilled. It is a reminder of past happiness and future potential. No matter how bleak the time may be, it knows that it will be required again, some time, some day for some celebration for someone.
And champagne is not prohibited in times of sadness either. Lady Bollinger, of the Bollinger brand of champagnes, famously said that she drank champagne when happy and when sad, found it comforting when she was alone and obligatory when she had company, trifled with it when she was not hungry and drank it when she was, but otherwise never drank champagne except when thirsty!
Such use of the flute is not to be recommended, but a tittle of what you fancy is always good for the psyche. The occasional Magnum on a celebratory occasion lifts the spirits and probably costs no more than a few rounds of less festive drinks. We need to learn how to ‘do without’ in these difficult times, but also, if we are fortunate enough, to still have enough, to be glad that we have what we have, and to do what we do with humour, joie de vivre and a spirit of exuberance. Sometimes, that may be done by raising, a flute to the future.
2. Biding Time When Times Are Tough
Biding time is a specific concept of time allocation. It is different to spending time, which has a commercial ring to it. It differs from saving time, which equally implies some financial investment. Biding time is about patience. It is about letting life unfold in its own time. It is not about hurrying towards a specific goal but knowing that change can come about equally well by waiting. Biding time lets what needs to be revealed, reveal itself, and emerge in its own time, unhurried by human interference.
Biding time is similar to but not the same as waiting. Waiting is a goal-oriented, active process. We wait for something that is specific and that we have expectations of arriving, or occurring, in a measurable period of time.
Biding time has a gentler pace. It allows time to pass by in its own way, knowing that what will be, will be. It is about having patience and understanding that what is destined to happen will occur in its own time without human intervention.
Our relationship with time has a deep psychology. It is complex. It is ambivalent. It changes with the passage of time itself. Time is not just something that we measure, allocate, determine and expend. While we have command over how we use it, it always has the greater power. While we may wait for time to pass and for anticipated events to arrive, time does not wait for us.
Time progresses regardless of our wishes, interventions or attempts to arrest it. We are both beneficiaries of its bounty and at its absolute mercy. Time does not pause when we would wish it to, nor will it advance speedily from that which we wish to avoid; it will not hurry towards what we desire or return to what we might wish to revisit. It has its own pace concurrent with our lives and how we live them, irrespective of how we do so.
Our existence is measured by time from birth to death and these dates are marked on our last resting place. We are each allocated a quota. How we spend it is up to us. Whether we enjoy it, savour it, apportion it, share it with others, assign it to specific activities, plan our use of it or see what it brings depends upon us, our construal of time and our personal motivations.
Or so we think.
Our relationship with time is not just personally significant, it has other implications depending upon how it is construed and used in families, in social groups, nationally and internationally.
This is why when we mess with time we hurt the present and damage the future in a way that has serious consequences for everyone in society. For example, we have been through one of the least admirable economic phases in our country’s history, essentially based on the maxim ‘time is money’. Time became a fiscal measure rather than a human one. Investment in property and shares rather than people dominated thinking. Time’s relevance was economically determined, time’s passage financially evaluated and the future determined in terms of asset appreciation with time.
Now we wait for time to recompense the errors of such thinking, for time to recoup our losses, return us to fiscal security and bring future compensation if we ‘share the pain’ and exert prudence in the present.
But those being asked to bide their time, to defer their pensions, to give time to solve what others created are angry: not about the loss of money, but about the loss of time. For many this is time they can ill afford to spend on enjoying what was promised, reap what they worked towards, benefit by what they saved for, what they invested in, what they believed they would have and deserved, having served their time in thriftiness. They cannot bide their time.
It takes time to get the measure of time, to appreciate its limits and to learn how to resource it. With the passage of time comes understanding that time is the most valuable currency one can possess and the theft of time a most abusive theft. This is why there is such anger towards those who tainted time with money in unholy profligate alliances, through which the most valuable asset of time has been stolen from everyone.
3. Nurturing the Sole
The therapeutic activity of washing feet is greatly overlooked. This is unfortunate, because foot-washing is a simple remedial intervention requiring no more than a bidet or a basin of comfortably hot water and whatever emollients one prefers to use to soothe the feet.
Washing feet is an extraordinarily effective way to de-stress, not least because it is simple, available, can be undertaken swiftly in situations of necessity, or can provide whole hours of self-indulgence that ensure a return to emotional equilibrium.
The restorative nature of foot-washing lies in the combination of activities involved. Firstly there is the decision to foot-wash. This acknowledges that relaxation is needed and that a ritual as ancient as time itself is to be undertaken to do so. Secondly, getting the temperature of the water right is imperative. This is a delicate resting operation that displaces other concerns, because there is nothing as uncomfortable as putting one’s foot into water that is either too hot or too cold. Water for foot-washing has to be just right. Thirdly, the moment when sore feet are submerged in warm water is a moment of physical ecstasy and psychological release, providing a time to consciously imagine releasing all the worries of the day out through the feet.
While washing feet can take place anywhere in the house, veteran foot-washers understand the consideration this decision demands. For some, a dedicated space with all the accoutrements ready for ablution guarantees that they attend to their feet every single day. Some people like to take a prominent position in front of the television and enjoy the triple pleasure of solitude, foot-washing and entertainment, because washing feet is the fastest way to clear a room of occupants. Corns and calluses and other people’s bunions are not a pretty sight.
Some people make a ritual of foot-washing, with low lights, scented candles, fluffy towels to enfold the feet and rich, thick moisturising creams to complete the rite. Some people are pragmatic washing their feet after running, dancing or sport activities or perfunctorily at the end of each day.
For others, daily dousing is part of their health regime, central to good physical and mental well-being; they know that foot-washing is not to be undertaken lightly but to be engaged in with due seriousness and intent. The treatment of diabetes stresses that feet be kept healthy and that any cuts, abrasions, or ulcers are treated immediately. Foot massage is recommended for stress. Lavender foot-soaks assist sleep, and anyone who remembers the hot water bottle will recall the regressive reassurance of a hot bottle on icy feet in a cold bed.
When you wash your feet you wash your life. You become aware of the expenditure of your physical and emotional energy. You are conscious if you have been ‘on your feet’ all day – the toll that can take on your well-being, and the importance of ‘putting your feet up’, of taking time out for yourself for a while every day. Foot-washing is more than washing the feet. It is an art ancient and new across eastern and western cultures.
Washing the feet of another has signified hospitality, reverence, communion and community since time began. The washing of feet features in many religious faiths, ordinances and observances and is a practice both simple and profound, of honour, servitude, submission and celebration. Since biblical times there have been potent examples of feet-washing as acts of love, of humility, of piety, of respect, of equality, of contrition, of courtesy and of care.
Feet are metaphorical and emotional barometers. To get ‘cold feet’ is to lose confidence in oneself; to ‘put one’s foot in it’ is to make a mistake; to have ‘two left feet’ is to feel awkward and clumsy; while ‘putting the best foot forward’ is a statement of courage and intent.
Feet are diagnostic. Before there were weather forecasts, there were men and women’s feet to foretell if rain was on the way. When our great-grandmothers sat and soaked their feet, pared their corns and predicted rain based on how itchy and inflamed those poor corns were, they never imagined that they were doing something as highfaluting as chiropody or as elite as psychosomatic care.
But even before podiatry, people knew that if you didn’t take care of your feet, you’d have pains in your back. Before there were foot spas, there were basins of soapy water. Before reflexology, people implicitly understood that if their feet were ‘killing them’, their general health needed attention. They knew that kneading the foot was good for the sole.
4. On Times Past: The Psychology of Frugality
Frugality is the practice of self-restraint, self-denial, of thrift, prudence and economy in consumption. Recently it has been rediscovered, revisited and revised. Necessity has always been a great re-inventor of old inventions. And so frugality is being updated and upgraded for a generation that never heard about it before, or who perhaps regarded it as miserliness, as tight-fisted, penny-pinching mealy-minded stinginess.
It is extraordinary to witness frugality emerging as a new, exciting, environmentally friendly, ecologically sound, behaviourally restrained economic concept and practice. Yet to a generation that remembers the middle of the last century, frugality was a way of life enshrined in thinking and practice as if it were constitutional.
Solid, hardworking, modest living was respected: ‘the honest crust’ and the work that produced ‘the daily bread’. There was virtue in ‘making do’, which was an art form of creativity, of lateral thinking and which, in hindsight, demonstrated a natural intelligence illusive to psychological measurement on academic or psychometric scales, but powerful and productive in its time.
That is why the new high status that the concept of frugality is enjoying is amusing to the generation that practiced it decades ago, many of whom most wisely never discontinued the practice, despite all societal inducements to do so. This is because they knew, instinctively, the simple maxim that ‘what goes up must come down’, and that includes inflation.
Many of us grew up in an era that recycled before the word was invented; an era when ‘waste not want not’ was respected; when every object had at least a second use; when the brown paper wrapping on the ‘parcel from America’ was folded and saved to cover school books, the string stored, the stamps collected for the ‘missions’, and the contents of that box of shiny objects and colourful clothes relished for their garish gaiety and outrageous luxury. They were symbols of unimaginable consumerism from the other side of the Atlantic, consumption that was alien, at the time, to these shores.
Those who remember the former incarnation of frugality will confirm that it was more than thriftiness, more than carefulness, more than cost-consciousness, sparing, saving, parsimonious behaviour. It was more than prudent management of limited resources. It was ingrained. It was ideological. It was ethical practice. It was a moral imperative. Its converse was a ‘sin’. The parable of ‘the talents’ was known, whereby one had a duty to use one’s gifts wisely and to share them with others generously.
Frugality was practiced as a household norm. Who of that time will remember the ordinary, everyday frugality: the darning and mending, the hand-me-downs from eldest to youngest, the hems turned up and down, the buttons replaced, shoes heeled, mended and polished to perfection on Saturday nights.
Wardrobes were small, possessions were few. Quality, not quantity, was what counted. Clothes were bought big and grown into. There was ‘the good coat’, the ‘Sunday best’ and the ‘everyday’. The burden of decision about what to wear was not upon child or adult because choices were few.
It was a generation that did not encourage too much ‘dressing up’ or ‘showing off ‘. Wealth, if one was fortunate to be blessed with it, was understated, inconspicuous and discreet. Leftovers became shepherd’s pie. Home produce, to which we are now returning, was the order of the day. A society that atavistically remembered the Famine did not waste anything edible at all.
This is not to idealise a time that had its own most serious difficulties, to pretend that terrible poverty did not exist, or to deny a different kind of gloom, pessimism, darkness, dreariness and dread that hung over a people in a new Republic struggling to find an identity. But if research has shown the psychological benefits of the practice of frugality versus a materialistic ethos, then re-appropriating frugality is worthwhile.
Materialism has been linked psychologically with less well-being, problematic relationships, more competitive and less cooperative behaviour, with more ecologically degrading behaviour, higher carbon footprints and less generosity.
Frugality as a chosen practice has been equated with greater happiness, self-esteem, self-control, lower anxiety and with greater generosity and altruism. Imagine: we practiced it before psychology measured it.
Less is more!