Thursday, 21 January 2016

On hard choices

A propos of nothing in particular.

My mother keeps her accounts in hand written double entry tables that would make medieval Venetian auditors weep. Her financial discipline is legendary (only a portion has come down to me). My mother's planner is similarly detailed, with colored blocks delimiting her time into discrete clusters. My mother is disciplined, strong willed, organised, and has been since she left her parent's house at 14 to go to a boarding school she was only able to attend because of her excellent grades.

At least five times in my mother's life, someone (her mother, her employer, her ex husband, her employer again, her landlords) has tried to take her livelihood away. Each time, my mother has doubled down on her organization and discipline. She has built a successful small business as a private tutor, and when necessary has expanded it to fill all available time so she could get money. She saves, she scrimps. She budgets her money and her time to the last penny and the last second. She doesn't give up, and so far, she has won every time.

I have learnt a lot from my mother's handling of tough choices, both from what she told me, and from being around for three of them. I have learnt to calculate compound interest, to track every penny, to scour sales. I have learnt patience. I have learnt to read the fine print, to check for myself, to ask questions. I have learnt the importance of rigor and discipline in getting anything done, and to never assume that things will sort themselves out.

I have also learnt other things. I have learnt never to trust what is not in writing. I have learnt never to put too much faith in the future. I have learnt that you should show up in court calm and collected in a sensible, freshly pressed suit you can barely afford to listen as your husband's lawyer explains that the house you both lived in and the education you both gave your children is too extravagant. I have learnt that you should not, under any circumstances, betray any emotion at this, though you may spend the next night raging into your pillow. I have learnt that when your employer looses track of ten years of your retirement contributions, they will tell you there is nothing to be done. I learnt that when you then spend two years tracking down pay slips from forty years ago, the lady handling the file that you have reconstructed will congratulate herself, and suggest that she really should come on a trip to London. I have learnt that you should say you would be glad to be her guide should she ever choose to do it.

I have learnt that knuckling down takes a toll. That going into crisis mode can become a habit. I have learnt your sleep can go to pot, and then your health. I have learnt that repeatedly getting screwed by people who are supposed to be looking out for you leaves deep wounds that stay fresh a very long time.

My mother never made us work as teenagers, and is always generous with her money. I have asked her why, and her reason is simple: no one was there to help her, and doing it on her own was hard. As she once observed to me when discussing her discipline and rigour "it might have been nice to know who I could have been if I hadn't had to be so disciplined and rigorous".

Mostly, what I have learnt from my mother is this. Tenacity, rigor, discipline, financial nous will help you in times of crisis, or when other people try to screw you over. But those efforts come at a cost, and one should not mistake the ability to endure adversity, with the adversity being a good thing. My mother is an amazing woman, but she would be the first to say that parts of her would have been better off without having to fight all these fights.

Pragmaticism is a necessity, but it is neither itself a virtue, nor a begetter of virtue. And tough choices, unavoidable as they may be, remain tough, and may leave us hard and hurt.

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