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“Emotional Thrift”

A scene from Brief Encounter (1945)

When I had my first child I was thrilled to be able to use a name that had been in my mind for so many years. Celia. Unique, lovely and inspired by one of my favourite movies: Brief Encounter. The film centres around the love story of Laura (played by Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) who meet by chance and fall in love.

Without spoiling the story, it is enough to say that both are married and it’s an aching portrayal of repressed emotions and English society in the 1940s. It’s reminiscent of The Bridges of Madison County and Celia Johnson does a magnificent job of capturing Laura’s emotions of boredom, passion and heartache often just through the expression of her beautiful eyes. Very little is spoken in the film about the powerful emotions that Alec and Laura are dealing with.

The film is a time capsule of a generation when life carried on no matter how painful or awful feelings might be. We have all seen the poster “Keep Calm and Carry on” even if it may have a complicated history. You may even have family members who fought in the war and never discussed it. During that time so many experiences and feelings lay buried, perhaps too painful to revisit or share.

India Knight coined the term “emotional thrift” in her 2008 book Thrift, which applies the concept to everything from food to beauty. In the final chapter, Knight implores readers to practice emotional thrift to preserve not only the mood of others but also ourselves. “This isn’t (quite) a plea for all of our human transactions to have a tragically repressed Brief Encounter vibe about them,” she writes, “but it is a plea for a return to a stiffening of upper lips. Emoting all over the place is exhausting, makes you vulnerable, and is seldom the cure-all it’s touted as being.” (Thrift by India Knight, 265).

My parents are from a generation where emotions and heartbreak were held close. Life just carried on when bad things happened. During the Second World War, with his Dad fighting overseas, my father (then a toddler) was sent away from his mother to live with relatives. Switched from school to school, suffering a burst appendix and put in hospital, he experienced what was no doubt a traumatic few years. My sister and I cry at some of his stories like the time he had his suitcase packed for the seaside and stood with his Aunt as the train roared straight through the station and they headed back home. His Aunt simply shrugging her shoulders, disappointment be damned.

In 1960, a mining disaster in my mother’s tiny valley town killed 45 men. For a small mining town in Wales, this meant entire families would have been devastated with fathers, sons and brothers gone.

Like many other sad stories from their childhood, my parents rarely speak of these things with us. When asked, they typically shrug their shoulders and say it was just life then.

Today, we are encouraged to feel deeply at every turn, from yoga classes to self help books. We are also immersed in social media where people routinely share intimate parts of their lives. I have probably shared more over social media in the last few years than I ever would have in the past. Lately I’ve been reflecting on what and how much I share, taking some time to reread India Knight’s book and also a great book by Rebekah Lyons called Rhythms of Renewal (she has a chapter all about her own Instagram addiction and how she broke it).

It’s such a difficult balance, isn’t it? We build relationships by sharing how we are feeling and bonding over moments of happiness, grief, even frustration. But when does sharing become too much? Do you ever have moments when you wish you hadn’t shared how you were feeling? Or a secret that you wish you had kept under wraps?

Oversharing may be caused by anxiety but it can also be a response to feeling like we NEED to share the details of our lives with others. As though it’s expected of us…part and parcel of life in the 21st century. I always admire people who are not on social media and am always curious to hear why they avoid it.

It’s hard to imagine what the generation of Brief Encounter would make of our feeling-saturated, oversharing world. They might be horrified by how openly feelings are shared but they probably would have benefited from a little more openness, knowing how much sadness lay buried after the War.

But India Knight does have a point when she argues that we might all benefit from a little more “emotional thrift”. There is something to be said for saving some feelings just for ourselves…keeping some moments out of the camera lens and just saved in our memories.

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