Sunday, 22 July 2012

Are you low or high maintenance?

This blog post has been partly inspired by the comment by Peter in the post below about individuals living beyond their means, and partly because I've been thinking and reading articles recently about austerity given the economic crisis.

I've blogged before about the fact that my two sons are like chalk and cheese. They seem to be different in so many respects, one is always on facebook, the other doesn't even have a facebook account, one has a wide circle of friends, the other has a few trusted friends that he's known since primary school, one loves to shop, the other has to be talked into buying new clothes - and one of them is always asking for money while the other once handed his pocket money back and said, "I just don't need it." ( No, I am not making this up. Yes, I know it's not normal...)
The chair above belongs to the son who hands back his pocket money. It is very old and shabby and I announced that I was going to provide a new one. A conversation then occurred that went like this:
Son: There's nothing wrong with it.
Me: Yes, there is - look the stuffing is coming out. You need a new one.
Son: But I like this one and I don't care about the stuffing coming out.
Me: I do, it will be all over the bedroom floor. We can get you a new one.
A few hours later, said son called me to his room and proudly showed me the chair which he had "repaired" using an old pair of jeans and cotton and thread thus avoiding the unnecessary expense (and trauma?) of having to have a new chair. I am still on a mission to replace it and I still haven't managed.
Our other son is not at all averse to buying new things, he will spend more money on an item of clothing than I would. We sometimes joke that he is high maintenance and his brother is low maintenance  - you might remember the clip from "When Harry met Sally" where Sally places a complicated order,  Harry later tells her that she is the worst kind of woman - one who thinks she is low maintenance but is actually high maintenance. Are you, I wonder, high or low maintenance?


  1. It is a difficult area because people are apt to wax lyrical about the virtue of thrift, while at the same time have their own little excesses (often secret ones at that!). Parsimony itself can become the subject of idolatry; and it is a familiar and universal trait to take pride in one’s humility (tho’ I have noticed the religiously inclined are more prone to this failing). At the monastery there was a novice brother who would ‘fast’ more severely than the rest of the brethren. He would miss breakfast and eat sparingly of lunch – yet this same brother could be found at odd times in the kitchen, his head in the fridge, gobbling up leftovers when he thought no one was looking. Other brothers would take delight in dressing in habits that were more patches than habit! Or the community as a whole happily gave the appearance of worldly poverty, yet happily shelled out £150,000 on a state of the art computer system, far in excess of their needs.

    The great problem, when it comes to material possessions and wealth (or lack of same) is that it is difficult to detach oneself from the power of excess or want. Within the Christian ascetical tradition there is much talk of ‘detachment’ from worldly possessions and pleasures – there are parallels in Islamic, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu mysticism. The real difficulty, as anyone who has tried to do knows, is that it is hard to define where we end and our possessions begin. They are a part of our identity. Moreover, as noted above, renouncing possessions or wealth can open up the door to even greater pride and self-satisfaction in one’s actions.

    The way forward, as far as I can see, is not to become too interested in either material possessions or what people (or one’s conscience) think of you. Yet this doesn’t mean one has to live in squalor! I was at a friend’s 50th birthday over the weekend. He and his partner are ‘Rich Islington’ poufs, living in a house worth around £2 million (and it’s only a terrace – though Tony Blair and his family used to live on the same street); but the house is designed for entertaining people – and the birthday celebration included a meal, a party at their house, waitress service. Despite their considerable wealth, they live fairly modest lives, the house isn’t ostentatious and their pleasures neither excessive nor vicious. My partner and I would give our high teeth for such a house, but we’re happy in our own modest home (worth around 15% of the price of our rich friends’ house!).

    I think the real issue is not to be possessed by one’s possessions, nor feel chagrin or covetousness when one’s own life is lacking some of the things that would make it nicer! But it could be argued that your son is ‘possessed’ by the desire to hold on to things once they are past their usefulness... Another error is hoarding and not being able to let go; a problem I used to see again and again in social work – elderly people with houses stuffed after years of hoarding.

    So what is the via media...? I don’t know... But if you take pride in the fact you think you’ve got it right, then you’ve probably got it wrong...

  2. I think you are right and there are some challenging observations there. I nearly linked to an article on living on a pound a day. This was the Christian Aid challenge last year, I believe, and aimed to replicate the experience of many in the Third World who live on the equivalent. The trouble is that doing this, for a week or even the whole of lent, doesn't/ can't replicate the experience of that level of poverty. I also wonder if some do it more for the sense of an "extreme challenge" than any other reason? I suppose it is OK if it is an endeavour to raise money for charity but there may be mixed motives- aren't our motives for so many things mixed though?
    The son in question, I think, just gets very attached to his personal things, especially clothes, rather than it being about money. I think familiar possessions represent a kind of emotional security rather than a drive for frugality-(although he is fairly indifferent to money unless he wants to buy a computer game!) It means he doesn't cost much, but it probably isn't really that healthy! I hope he doesn't turn into a hoarder - or a monk with or without patched robes! Given the number of atheist books in his room, I don't think there's much chance of the latter.

  3. It's also a case of what we have been taught to attach value to.
    When I was young me and my friends used to cut out labels from clothes because they were uncomfortable and because we weren't going to advertise for a commercial company! Having to parade labels seemed to be an imposition.
    How the world has changed since then and you cannot open a book anymore without people's clothing being described including the labels they wear. And my girls are certainly label mad.

    When they were little, though, we overheard a conversation between the older one (then 4) and the younger one (then 2):
    M: when we wake up tomorrow, Santa will have left us lots of presents. Lots and lots and lots and they will be BIG presents!
    A: I don't want big presents!
    M: They will be MASSIVE!
    A (now in tears): But I'm little and I want little presents!
    M: That's ok, how about I give you all my little presents and you give me all your big ones?
    A: On thank you, M...!

  4. Yes, I agree it is often what we are taught. My "high maintenance" son will certainly pay a lot more for certain labels, and I have to say I have a certain distaste for his interest in labels and brands and just feel he is being ripped off! He must have got it from friends/ today's society 'cos it certainly hasn't come from me or Kev. Individuals do adopt different approaches though, as seen in other son!
    That's a cute conversation between your daughters, amazing how quickly they learn!

  5. I can't believe I wrote "me and my friends"! Shoot me, please!!!

  6. Oh, OK then! :)
    I blame the instantaneous, off the cuff nature of internet communication for my many infelicities of grammar and spelling.