At the doctor’s office the other day, I blew my nose into a tissue, and then squirreled away a few more tissues for later. It was just habit. Tissues are something I don’t buy, because I think of them as horrendously expensive, something only frivolous wastrels spend money on. It’s a mindset I learned when we were poor.
My family’s not poor anymore. I can’t remember the last time I felt my blood run cold over a grocery store receipt. The electric company hasn’t threatened us in years, and the last time my son needed shoes, I just … bought him a pair of shoes. At a shoe store! I didn’t have to pull them off the corpse of a hobo or anything.
But we used to be poor, so savagely poor, always ignoring one basic need so we could tend to another. If we bought fruit, that meant no meat. If we paid for heating oil, that meant no gas for the car. My most withering scorn was reserved for people who wasted money on dryer sheets, when that money could have made them the proud owners of an entire gallon of milk. We had to scrimp, be thrifty in all things, and subject every purchase to a grand inquisition, because there just wasn’t any extra to go around.
This approach was appropriate, if not pleasant, as long as we remained poor. It was the prudent way to behave at the time. The only problem with this ultra-thrifty lifestyle is that it’s very hard to shake. We have money now, and we can spend it more or less as we like; and yet I retain these weird pockets of cheapness, and I don’t even realise they’re weird. I sometimes find myself staring longingly at a gorgeous melon or a cosy pair of socks, wishing I could put it in my shopping cart, and then suddenly I realize that I can. I’m depriving myself and my family of good and pleasant things, for no reason at all, just out of habit.
But I was pulled up short when I caught myself tucking away those tissues with glee. How tawdry it was, and how unnecessary; two little tissues, and they weighed so heavily in my possession.
When some minor event clangs a warning gong, it makes sense to stop and wonder why. In this case, I think the Holy Spirit was whispering through those tissues into my ear: When outdated thriftiness is just a matter of money, it just makes us eccentric; but if we’re unduly thrifty with our spiritual lives, it can stunt us grievously, and that’s a habit we shouldn’t be content to live with.
Sometimes, we are truly spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, or situationally impoverished: we at a time in our lives when we just don’t have anything to spare. During times of crisis or of prolonged suffering, we may not have anything in our spiritual or behavioural “budgets” besides a thin, strangled moan. For those who are overwhelmed, an especially good and fervent prayer might sound like, “Lord! The thing! And the other thing! I just . . . arghhh. Please?” Maybe we yearn to commit to saying five decades of the rosary every night and passing out armloads of spiritual bouquets to all our friends in need, but we are reduced to admitting that a Hail Mary in the morning is all we can manage.
Sometimes we want to be bountiful, but it’s all we can do to care for our own basic needs. Sometimes we long desperately to be able to give, to help, to nurture and protect, and instead we have to admit that right now, we are needy and only needy, not able to offer anything. It takes humility, which is a kind of spiritual budgeting, to be content to be the one who receives charity and does it with grace.
In times like this it makes sense to be thrifty: to budget our resources with careful prudence, whether those resources are time, energy, material goods, or spiritual practices, or even our own notions of ourselves. It makes sense to look at where we are in life, to consider what we can reasonably offer, and to be as generous as we can, according to our means – acknowledging that we can’t give what we don’t have. This attitude is only prudent.
But pay attention. These habits take hold, and can sometimes linger longer than they ought. What was once the best I can do may be just habit now. It’s a good idea to take stock, and to consult with a spiritual director, if you have one. Is it time to step up my prayer life? Can I get to confession a little more often? Do I have the emotional wherewithal to extend myself and help out someone who is needier than me? Am I in survival mode long after the crisis has passed? Am I actually pretty flush in my intangible assets, but behaving as if I’m still starkly poor?
Maybe two years ago, it would have been pure folly to step up and volunteer to teach a catechism class – but maybe now, if I give myself an honest assessment, I’ll see that I really can do it. Maybe in the past, a simple morning offering really was the best I could manage for prayer – but maybe now, if I’m steadier on my spiritual feet, it’s time to build up a little stamina in my prayer life. Maybe there was a time when it really was a good day if I kept all the kids alive and didn’t burn the house down. But now? Let’s step it up, do some extras, put in some effort, because now I can afford it.
Maybe I truly couldn’t manage before, and it was prudent and reasonable and right to be careful, to budget, and to be thrifty. But maybe now, I can do more, and so I should.
Well, I offered to babysit someone’s kids. And I bought a box of tissues, too. It’s a start!