Dear Dr. Hurd: My mother is a good, well-meaning lady. But every so often she reminds me of the fact that she grew up during the Great Depression, and so learned the value of saving things. And whenever I am seen throwing away a plastic bag or a piece of aluminum foil that could be re-used (and probably already has been), she confesses to me that she and others of her generation have failed to teach their children how important it is to not throw things away.
I agree that it is best to save as many things as you can, but I don’t save every single disposable item in the house. The last time she reminded me of her experience of the Depression, I wanted to say to her: “I know you don’t mean it to, but whenever you say that to me it sounds as if it’s my fault that I did not grow up during the Great Depression. But it isn’t my fault; I did not decide when to be born.” But I chose to “bite my tongue”. Should I have? I was afraid of making it more of an issue that it is; but it still gnaws at me. Should I have spoken up?
Dr. Hurd’s reply:
If you respect someone enough to love them, you likewise respect them enough to tell them what you think. It’s showing respect for yourself, too. It’s called sticking up for yourself, and refusing to be morally intimidated by anyone, not when you haven’t done anything wrong.
What you proposed to say to your mother was not disrespectful at all. Of course you should say that, if it’s what you think. If you say anything less, then you’re having something less than an authentic relationship with her.
I don’t expect her to agree with what you say, or to necessarily like it. But she’s entitled to know where you stand, and when she repeatedly says or does things you don’t like. And you’re entitled to say it.
People too often “bite their tongues” because they fear conflict. That’s what I think you’re doing with your mother. But there’s already conflict! You’re walking away from your mother, annoyed and hurt, every time she does this. I call that conflict.
If it’s a fight or argument with her that you fear, keep this in mind: You never have to fight when you don’t want to. If she gets hostile or defensive in reply, you don’t have to escalate it. You can simply say, “I just wanted to get that off my chest. That’s all.” And refuse to fight. The fact that you hit a nerve proves that she heard you. And that’s a good thing!
If you ask me, your mother’s argument is wrong. Hers is the argument of many who lived in the Great Depression, but it’s also the argument of recycling and other “green” advocates today. They believe that supply is limited, and that the central purpose of human activity is redistribution and reusing. Not true. What mankind needs is production, not recycling. Government, environmentalists and other people with your mother’s attitude get in the way of production. This is why we have 0 or 1 percent growth a year, instead of the much higher growth (and much lower unemployment) it would be under genuine capitalism. Unfortunately, nearly everyone in positions of power and influence agree with your mother, and not me. As a result, things keep getting worse, not better. And what do they blame? Capitalism. The very thing we’re gradually outlawing!
When I hear somebody say something like what your mother said, it makes me angry. It leads me to feel that the wrong things are being blamed. This is unjust, and I can’t keep quiet about it. No, I won’t waste time in arguing with someone who won’t or can’t be convinced. But I won’t be silent either.
Being silent, in this way, eats away at you. It gnaws away at your body and your psyche, as you say. It’s not good.
Life is not about the avoidance of conflict. Life is about the achievement of values. It’s true that you didn’t grow up in the Great Depression, and that’s not your fault. But I don’t think your mother is suggesting that. It sounds like she’s beating up on herself, and her generation, for not teaching the younger generation what she sees as the importance of not throwing things out. Human survival desperately depends on production, not recycling; on lifting the standard of living for all, not moralistic redistribution.
Actually, her generation did its job well—at least by their own standards. We have a society filled with guilt-ridden people who recycle their milk containers and keep voting for politicians who undermine our ability to continuously raise the standard of living for all. We’re in the midst of a Great Recession now and possibly another Great Depression as well. None of this happened because people failed to throw out their orange juice and milk containers. The great majority were recycling as it was, and we still experienced economic decline.
Your mother ought not to spread this unearned guilt — or to feel it herself. If you can do anything to help her see this, then you’ll have done both of yourselves a big favor indeed.