I wonder how the world would change if we treated our emotional reserves the way we ought to treat our financial ones.
Benjamin Franklin defined frugality like this: “Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.” I’d like to focus on emotional frugality: being wise in the way we spend our scarce emotional resources. I wonder how it would add meaning to our lives and strength to our relationships if we learned to monitor our emotional health the way we monitor our nest-eggs.
In particular, I’ve noticed one thing draining my accounts of late: outrage. Here are three things that have helped me stay away from emotional impulse-buying.
1) Save for a rainy day: There are others who depend on your emotional health.
I don’t know the circumstances of your life, but I know that there are people in your life who need you—they need your strength, your kindness, and your emotional health. Your choices affect more than just you. You do not have an endless reserve of emotional capacity, and that reserve needs attention.
Start by making regular contributions to your emotional savings account, because the time will come for an emergency withdrawal. Love your loved ones. Develop and share your talents. Contribute to the world around you, and dedicate yourself to something bigger than yourself.
Make sure there’s always a little left in the account, too. When I overdraw on my emotional bank account, it is my family who pays the price. My children need dad and my wife needs her partner. Any time I spend healing up from an emotional injury is time that my team is down a player, so better to play safe to begin with—stretch before and after, and know when to quit.
As a friend recently observed, “the world would have you be thin-skinned and sharp-clawed. We must be thick-skinned and soft-pawed.” Civility isn’t just for the other guy, it’s also about protecting your spoons, so best to wear pads, play by the rules, and keep your mouth-guard in place.
2) Invest wisely: Compassion and resolve beat outrage any day.
The friends I know who are most affected by outrage are not evil; to the contrary, they are the deepest feeling, most compassionate people I know. To them I would give this message: I do not dispute the outrages of the world; I have simply noticed that those who are making the biggest difference are clear-eyed, resolute, and let their actions speak louder than their words. Your selflessness is noble, but goodness isn’t determined by where you place in the outrage Olympics. It’s determined by how many times you lift up the hands that hang down.
Listen more. Hear more. Understand more. Feel as deeply as you can, without putting yourself at risk. Then, in a quiet moment, ask yourself this: are you willing to trade your outrage for a better world? Trade anger for action, because burying your weapons of war doesn’t just improve your blood pressure and relationships, it actually does more to improve the world.
Notice that the outrage-peddlers exploit your selflessness. They are enriched by your clicks, your eyeballs, and most of all your sense of justice—so don’t waste money on their junk food. Some even use your goodness to control you. Throughout history, the greatest atrocities committed were orchestrated by masters of the politics of resentment. So, too, there are those today who would use anger to divide us. If you would avoid being a puppet, take a moment to notice the strings.
3) Don’t fall for the scam: Outrage is a distraction from the things that matter.
The abundant life—the life of meaning—is a life of gratitude, passion, hope, and love; of connections, relationships, contributions, and service. I am not advocating that you have no opinions, or that you become lukewarm. I advocate that you embrace the good life, and that you challenge anyone or anything that would rob you of it—including the purveyors of outrage, both cheap and dear.
I know what it is like to go to work angry at the latest in politics, or to come home under assault by the weight of the world. Let me riff on a favorite quote: “Your emotional well-being as a family, our emotional well-being as a society, must never be determined by what happens in the White House, but by what happens in your house.” I won’t cede power to those who would steal my peace or well-being, or that of my family. They don’t deserve even a penny.
A thought, in closing: Perhaps avoiding outrage is the domain of those with easy lives. Maybe. My life has been one of texture, perhaps, but not of trauma. I’ve been lucky, and I see that. What I’ve learned, however, is that feeling outrage–for myself or for the emotionally impoverished–is both the less effective, and the more selfish path; it puts my emotional needs over their actual needs. At the end of the day, what matters isn’t the amount of my emotional investment, but the rate of return. Are my expenses intended to actually “do good to others or myself?” Or am I feeling bad for others in order to feel good about myself?
I’d argue that if we are careful with our emotional expenditures, that we make the world a little better–because those who have very little emotional reserves, the poor in spirit, may need a loan from us when the going gets rough, and every cent counts. So for them, as much as myself, I will do what I can to “waste nothing.” And if you don’t think you have anything to spare to those around you, remember that the widow gave the greatest amount of all when she cast her mite, because she gave out of her poverty, not out of her abundance. A penny saved is a penny earned–even, and perhaps especially, when we’re feeling the most impoverished.