I get a big kick out of the fact that whenever I hang with my brother’s children, inevitably at some point I will dish out one of our Dad’s golden oldies and be told with awe “My Dad says that too!” This last visit I got to use “I SEE, said the blind man…but he didn’t see at all.” It’s a classic. And it applies to SO MUCH of the stuff that comes out of a kid’s mouth, am I right???I have related before that my Father’s rallying cry was “This is it! This is what you’ve been trained for!” and I have to admit it was subliminally very successful; my siblings and I all have a general “can do” attitude about most things. Not a princess in the lot, and I’d say that was quite a parenting accomplishment when you consider that 3 out of 4 of us are girls. But in spite of Pop’s desire to raise a prepared and practically competent brood, he also used to preach that when given the opportunity, we should “buy the red dress”.
He said it as often as anything, and we quote him on it whenever it is appropriate to the occasion…but I have to admit, of all of the madly effective conditioning my Father employed on us, this was the least successful for me. It definitely worked for my siblings, but somehow my closet Puritan/miser would always manage to wrestle the red dress out of my hands while screaming, “HOW can you even CONSIDER buying that? Don’t you want to EAT???”Of course, in my poverty stricken, starving artist 20’s, that was actually a reasonable question. But as time went on and the budget increased, my attitude did not keep pace. “Buying the red dress” seemed frivolous to me…grandiose, almost. Whatever the red-dress-of-the-moment, I could always quite easily talk myself into something less—or just as often, nothing at all. I told myself I was emotionally healthy because I didn’t need “things” to make me happy. I was a bit smug because I had never been bitten by the “retail therapy” bug.
As my life continued to grow and expand there was definitely the occasional splurge; but it never brought me much joy because I felt so guilty about it. My husband and I had decided early on in our relationship to live without credit card debt, so everything we bought (apart from cars and houses) had to be subsidized by cash-on-hand. We never purchased ANYTHING we could not pay for immediately, so I began to understand that my guilt was probably not the healthiest response; why was it so difficult to “treat” myself?Then I had a significant exchange with my Dad in the last few months of his life; I had expressed contempt for a young starlet who had just spent $100,000 on a watch. A WATCH, for crissake. After I finished my rant about how the thing “better have the ability to stop time or at least make her breakfast!” my Dad very calmly reminded me that it was her money to do with as she pleased. Cue my second rant, imploring that if she had an extra $100,000 lying around to spend on a watch, might she not have budgeted maybe only $50K for the watch and given the rest to a worthy charity?
My Dad countered—would I be okay with her spending the 100K on a watch if she had additionally given 50K to charity? Now I’ll confess: I still wasn’t okay with the watch. It seemed frivolous and grandiose, wasteful and stupid. So then I had to admit it…I had been harboring a deep-seated prejudice against red dresses and the people who think it’s okay to buy them when there is so much suffering in the world.I continued to pinch pennies, shop at TJ Maxx and roll my eyes at anyone who purchased anything that wasn’t on sale. I continued to refuse to replace anything that was still working, no matter how “outdated” or shabby. I started using the phrase “I’m not externally motivated, I’m internally motivated” to justify my disdain for people who took pleasure in material objects. I lived life on a tight budget and like Scrooge, took pleasure in THAT instead.
Then, we replaced the showerhead.To set the stage for this dramatic, life-changing moment, I will inform you that when we bought our current home, the showerheads were original to 90’s construction and cheap, flimsy affairs. Additionally, we have a well and at the time had an inadequate pressure tank, which meant water had to be meted out in the most parsimonious of fashions. Naturally I was very comfortable with all of this.
But some inciting incident that has slipped my mind prompted us to replace the showerhead in the master bathroom. And you know what? I actually didn’t buy the cheapest thing available! I threw caution to the wind and bought the second or third cheapest thing and once it was installed was amazed by the luxurious phenomenon of taking a shower that didn’t approximate a Great Dane drooling on my head.The sheer bliss! And the utter wonderment that I hadn’t forked over the 50 bucks years earlier in order to experience a halfway decent shower! I finally had my A-HA moment, as Oprah with her totally frivolous, grandiose, wasteful list of “favorite things” would say!
I finally understood that “buying the red dress” is not at all about the shameful disregard for other people’s suffering. It is about taking care of yourself so that you can go forth in life in an empowered and joyful way. It’s amazing what a nice, long, hot shower can do for your soul, isn’t it? We just replaced that inadequate pressure tank too, btw.And I did actually buy the metaphorical red dress, two years ago NOT ON SALE. I have worn it so often I have lost count, and it always makes me feel pretty and happy. My Dad was right. Go ahead and buy the red dress. You can’t play Scrooge with yourself and call yourself a generous person.
Go ahead and be happy, even though there is still suffering in the world. As Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”
Never go hungry again!!!