Yesterday my family buried my great aunt who, at 86, had lived her entire life without owning a home or a car. Her life was characterized by extreme frugality, her character shaped by her childhood in the Depression. When she had moved from the apartment she shared with her husband of 60 years, who predeceased her by just a short time, it was discovered that she had never discarded an empty jar or paper bag. Like many of her generation, nothing was ever wasted. Yet, unable to have children of her own, she never let a great-niece or great-nephew's birthday pass without a card and a check.
Hours later, after the mourners dispersed, I arranged to meet my parents back at my house for a visit. As I turned left onto a narrow street that leads to my home, a woman in a parked car on a cell phone opened her car door into the line of traffic, directly in front of my oncoming car. The front passenger corner of my car caught the outside edge of her open car door. I felt an impact and stopped.
The other car's driver began screaming at me, "It's a brand new car! I just bought it!" She demanded that we make a police report.
I called the police on my cell phone and described the accident.
"Is anyone hurt?" the police asked me.
"No," I responded, "and we both have insurance, but the other participant in the accident is distraught and would like a police report."
The officer suggested we simply exchange insurance information. The woman then called her insurance agent and cried to him, "My new car! My new car! It's been hit!" I also heard her say, grudgingly, "No, I'm not hurt," and "No, she's a nice lady."
The insurance agent asked to speak to me. I explained again that we had had a non-injury accident, and that there was slight damage to the door of her car. (Mine was undriveable.) He asked if there was any damage to the body of her car, or if anyone's airbag had deployed, or if there were skid marks from my car. When I said no to all these questions, he too suggested we simply exchange insurance information.
She then insisted on calling the police herself on her own cell phone. Again, they told her they wouldn't come, which sent her further crying, angrily, "I want a police report! It's a brand new car!" She then called her husband and cried and screamed at him.
"It's very upsetting. Do you need a hug?" She fell into my arms and cried.
She finally agreed to give me her insurance information, crying hysterically the entire time.
"Have you ever been in a car accident?" I asked.
"It's very upsetting. Do you need a hug?" She fell into my arms and cried. Moments later, she seemed to realize that she preferred her distress to the comfort of a hug and pulled away, reviving her tears and screams.
I finally made arrangements to leave the scene, as my father (in his 70s) would by this time be standing outside my home waiting for me, in the harsh Los Angeles summer heat. As I left, she was arranging to have a tow truck come for her car, which she insisted was also undriveable, although the body of the car had not been hit. I somehow got my disabled car home, and then called the tow truck, my agent, my insurance company, and her insurance company to make the necessary reports.
At home with my parents, the discussion tapered off after they confirmed that no one was hurt. An automobile accident with two insured drivers is a financial loss (of the insurance deductible) and an inconvenience, nothing more.
My father lost a brother in World War II, and still recalls the day the military envoy came to tell my grandmother the news. Bombs are exploding in Jerusalem buses and cafes, killing brides and young children. Two years ago, airplanes drove into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands and destroying a nation's sense of security forever. And just that morning, we had buried a childless woman who had lived 86 years without ever owning a car.
It was disturbing that the woman yelled at me so long and so hard, but mostly I just felt sad. What a life she must be living, that this non-injury, minor damage accident between two insured drivers so destroyed her composure. To me, the deductible on my car insurance seemed like a speed bump on the highway of our lives.
One of my favorite authors, Geneen Roth, advises us to treat every new thing as if it is already broken. "The nature of things is that if they don't get lost, they get stolen, and if they don't get stolen, they get broken, and if they don't get broken, they fade or fall apart. This law applies to teacups, cars, people, sweaters, pets, computers, earrings, and just about everything you can touch or buy or have." This simple idea permits us to enjoy things fully when they are new, and not mourn them terribly when they are no longer pristine.
With this in mind, I have tried to live by the maxim that if I know I couldn't bear to lose something, I don't buy it. If I would be upset if a baby spit up on an outfit, I don't buy it, because I'd rather be available to hold a baby than wear the most delicate fabric in the room.
The total price of things is not just the purchase price, but also the energy we expend to protect, preserve, insure and grieve them.
When I drove my car home from the dealer, I deliberately imagined it in an accident to get over the loss of "perfectness" that would inevitably occur, and which of course did occur a month later when I found my car in a parking lot with a gash in it, and no note. Of course I regret the wasted money, but I don't want to add to the loss by missing the beauty of another moment of life while I mourn the paint job on my car.
If having possessions means we live in fear and loss, we are not richer for them.
In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is written, "The more possessions, the more worries." The total price of things is not just the purchase price, but also the energy we expend to protect, preserve and insure them, and to grieve them when they are destroyed or just ravaged by ordinary use or passage of time. The new dress gets torn or stained; the sweater is left behind at school or lost; the book is borrowed and never returned.
Our sages are cautioning us not to be consumed with worry over our possessions, not because we shouldn't care about wasted money, but because after we have spent our money, we lose much more by investing our time, our mind, and our spirit in reliving the loss. In this way, we lose the opportunity to live in the current moment by being attached to material things we have lost.
Like many of her generation, my Aunt Betty lived frugally but died with a substantial net worth, hard-won money from saving carefully of her telephone operator's salary and her husband's pay as a parking attendant. Some people think she was "too cheap" to buy a car. But I can't help thinking Aunt Betty spared herself a lot of grief by taking the bus.