Friday, August 3, 2007

I get my sinning started first thing in the morning.

I'm trying to convince myself I don't need a bath mat. Why is it so hard not to spend money? I mean, I obviously am spending money. I bought my son a bike helmet at Target on Monday. I would have bought myself a round pail with a locking lid for my daughter's dirty diapers on Tuesday, but I can't seem to find a store that carries one. Today I dropped $100 at the grocery store for a week's worth of groceries. These are things I need, so I have to buy them. I don't have to buy myself a bath mat. We have an old towel on the floor which absorbs excess water just fine. It looks kind of jenky, as my sister would say, but it works.

So why do I look at it every morning and think to myself, "Man, I want a bath mat"? Why can't I just get over it and accept that I'm not going to buy the bath mat?

I'm also struggling with a desire for accolades. I want my husband to say something like, "Tienne, I've noticed how you're trying to save our family money by not buying a bath mat for the bathroom. I think it shows your strength of will and commitment to your ideals, and I'm proud of you."

This isn't going to happen for a bunch of reasons, primarily because my husband would just never say something like that and also because I haven't talked to anyone about this blog or what I'm trying to do. So it's doubly futile to hope for some kind of verbal acknowledgment or praise.

And I shouldn't need it. I mean, I'm not doing this for the accolades. I'm doing it because I think it's right.

So why do I feel disgruntled that I'm not being verbally stroked for my efforts?

I think it reflects just how difficult it is to be countercultural. As a faithful Catholic and natural living advocate, I ought to be used to this experience. In college, I used to respond to guys expressing interest with a flat "Just so you know, I'm a good Catholic. I don't have sex." And I have received a few indulgent smirks when revealing that I don't believe in punishing my kids or that a hospital is one of the worst places to have a baby.

It's amazing to me, though, how virulent the hostility can be to the idea that we don't have the right to spend our money however we want it. Of all the norms in our society, money may be one of the most untouchable and entrenched. People simply DO NOT want to admit that there's a moral component to the way they spend money, or that they have an obligation to people outside their family circle.

I mentioned at dinner one holiday ago that we Americans have an obligation to take care of the world because we are so incredibly rich. One of my relatives immediately piped up, "Well, not me! I'm totally broke." I replied, "You have a house with running water and a television. Your kids are well fed and educated. They have toys. You have more outfits than there are days in a month. Compared to the rest of this world, you and your kids are living like kings." But I could see that she completely disagreed with me -- in her mind, she was poor because she still had to think about money. She still had to plan where it went, save for the things she wanted, and worry about having enough for the things she needed.

I think the culture of our society has such a skewed perception of "rich" because we rarely see the truly poor. The Heritage Foundation posted a study a few years ago that studied poverty in America, and found that

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs.

There are people in need in this country, of course, people who are homeless, or going without food so their children can eat, or unable to pay their heating bills, or working in unsafe and toxic conditions. In fact, America has the widest gap between rich and poor in the world. But the average person who qualifies for assistance in America is better off than an upper class person in a developing nation. Small wonder, then, that we can't see how rich we are, if that's who we classify as poor.

And it's not just wealth that places us so far above the rest of the world. The advances in technology that we enjoy as a matter of course are so remarkable that they would be beyond the imagination of even a rich American of the previous century. As the Futurist has famously stated:

Consider John D. Rockefeller, a name nearly synonymous with wealth. At one point he had a net worth as high as 1/65th of US GDP at that time, a figure that would be the equivalent of $190 Billion today - four times what Bill Gates currently has. He owned land, employed people, and had political clout that would seem extraordinary at any time in history. But, having died in 1937 at the age of 98, Rockefeller never had photographs of his childhood, never watched a color film, never flew in a jet engine airplane, and never saw a photograph of the Earth taken from space. If Rockefeller wished to travel from New York to Chicago, it took him and his entourage more than a day. If his servant cut him during a morning shave (or even if he did it himself), a cloth bandage was the only kind available. His underwear did not have elastic, and since no cohort of servants could have realistically alleviated that problem for him, he probably spent every day accustomed to irritating hassles that would be unacceptable to even the poorest Americans today. He couldn’t have even obtained a tube of mint-gel toothpaste or a can of chilled Coca-Cola from a soda machine.

Just as I'm struggling to imagine how my mother went her whole childhood without central air or forced heat, most of us can't imagine living without a refrigerator or running water. These things are so natural to us, so ingrained in our lifestyles, that an existence without them is simply incomprehensible. How DO the 33 million people currently living in refugee camps survive? The conditions are brutal, and that's not even counting the emotional turmoil, the grief of losing family members, the stigma of interracial rape, the threat of continued violence, the adjustment to having lost a limb, etc etc etc.

In light of all this, how can I possibly step out of my hot, clean, wonderful shower, a luxury unattainable by the vast majority of this world's inhabitants, and fret about a BATH MAT? And then fret that no one is complimenting me for not buying one?

My selfishness is mind-boggling.

Picture credit.


Jennifer F. said...

It's amazing to me, though, how virulent the hostility can be to the idea that we don't have the right to spend our money however we want it.

Yes! This is so true! Some of our friends and family are involved in churches that preach the "health and wealth" gospel, in many cases with pastors who outright say that God wants to to be rich and that if you just pray hard enough and tithe you'll get it.

This sparked us to start asking ourselves what we think God expects from our family -- as well as from all people -- in terms of financial stewardship. What's surprising is that when we bring this up at social events people get a little bit touchy, even sometimes hostile, at the suggestion that there could be the slightest thing wrong with desiring to be rich -- even super-mega-rich. We're not even necessarily saying that we think definitively that it *is* wrong, we'd just like to explore the issue more, but it's hard to even have a conversation about it because it gets so emotional so quickly.

I don't think you were reading my blog when I wrote this post. I would have loved to have had you jump in on that one!

Tienne said...

Jennifer -

In backreading your blog I'd actually come across that post and bookmarked it because it's SO SPOT ON and because your excellent readers had some great points in the comments. So yeah, I wish I'd been reading back then!

I've only floated this idea a few times to the people close to me, and each time I've been met with such immediate and encompassing hostility that it's made me resolve to do my own thing and not discuss it. Which, really, is a coward's reaction. I'm hoping the time I spend working through my ideas on this blog can help me approach these people again. Because you're right, it's important to explore the issue. Did you see this article in TIME a few months ago? The sheer number of blatantly wrong philosophies in there almost made me gag.

I seriously do not understand how anyone could walk away from reading the Bible with the impression that God intends people to be filthy rich. Aiy.

Mike McG... said...

Excellent post...excellent blog, for that matter.

Wonder if you know about "In Silicon Valley;, Millionaires Who Don't Feel Rich," a feature article in last Sunday's New York Times. Absolutely stunning. Put me in mind of several great books on this subject: David Myers' "Inflation, Poortalk and the Gospel;" Robert Frank's "Luxury Fever;" Juliet Schor's "The Overspent American;" and Paul Wachtel's "The Poverty of Affluence."

Tienne said...

Mike McG -- Thanks for the book recommendations! I've been trying to improve my knowledge of the literature on this subject, so I'll add those to my Amazon reading list. I'm especially intrigued by the David Myers one. Have you read Affluenza, by John DeGraaf?

That article takes keeping up with the Joneses to a whole new level, doesn't it? I remember reading somewhere recently that the best path to finding happiness is to refrain from buying too much house. The theory is that if the "Joneses" are within reach, you'll feel much more satisfied with your career, paycheck, lifestyle, etc. These millionaires seem to consider leaving Silicon Valley as some sort of punishment or failure...why? Happiness is hardly failure!

Jessica said...

I found your post via Et tu, Jen? and I'm glad I did. It brought to the fore some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head since my family and I went camping a few weeks ago.

I came back from that trip with a real appreciation of running water, among other things, since we had to pump and carry all of ours at the campsite. And not even carry it that far, really.

I knew that there had to be some big, important realization lurking behind my sudden gratitude for running water, but I didn't ever manage to find it. I think I just found it in this post. Thank you for thinking so clearly and sharing it so well. You've given me a lot more to think and pray about.

peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell