Looking For A Line

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Photo by LucasTheExperience, via Flickr

I wasn’t there. I was supervising the little ones at Children’s Liturgy. But Alex, my thoughtful, empathetic Alex, was riveted to the missionary’s story of life in Haiti, of poverty so intense that children eat “cookies” made of clay.

When church was over, we drove home to a building that would house dozens of people in other parts of the world, but which shelters only six, a house filled with Stuff we rarely use but can’t or won’t get rid of, and a refrigerator stuffed with food, which we often stand in front of and sigh heavily, “There’s nothing to eat!”

In the days before, we bought a new DSLR camera for which we’ve been saving for well over a year, as well as solar lights for the front and a lovely arbor for my climbing roses. Each of these purchases, long anticipated, fills me with quiet happiness every time I look at them.

“Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

But now there’s an undercurrent of disquiet in my soul. The umbrellas and brooms in the coat closet fall over for the umpteenth time, and I growl, “We need some sort of closet organizer!”–and I think of children eating clay. “I hate all my clothes,” I complain. “As soon as I lose this baby weight I’m going shopping for things that actually look good on me!” And then I remember this picture, and I recognize my supposed necessities for the vanity they are.

We live in a world defined by our consumption. If we don’t consume, everything will fall to pieces, and everyone will be in dire straits, not just those in developing countries. Yet I look at the list of things I want to purchase, and I can’t help thinking how much better spent the money would be going to a place like Haiti, to keep people alive instead of feeding my need for more, more, more. Everything I want to do–travel, home decor, scrapbooking–in the face of such poverty, it feels vaguely immoral. It feels like a scam for me to earn money for singing or writing music or stories, for instance.

I know it isn’t. Beauty is built into the human psyche. What we need to stay alive is only part of the story; God made us to be fulfilled, not just survive, and art, music, beauty–all those “luxuries” are part of that. Somewhere there must be a line between using money to affirm and enjoy the beauty of the world…and gross waste of resources.

But I don’t know where it is.

How do you reconcile consumption and care for the larger world?

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11 thoughts on “Looking For A Line

  1. John Janaro

    I understand what you mean. I don’t know where that line is. I think we should start by being very humbled. What we can do is pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, love God, and seek to do His will. Perhaps we need to examine ourselves and ask ourselves, “Am I buying this/doing this/using this *for the love of God*? Does it help me to grow in love? To give myself?” We must pray to seek His will more and to grow in love. He will lead us to discover the “measure” that pertains to our particular vocation.

  2. Ciska

    It’s so very recognizable. This December, I’m going on a holiday to visit a friend in Africa. We’ll probably pass by villages where almost no one has a job, where people literaly die of hunger. And I’ll be there to enjoy the sun, the dunes, the animals, the company of friends … Spending over a thousand dollars on a plane ticket instead of on food for those who need it. Did I cross the line?
    What about people who spend the same amount on a television, a game console or a painting? Should we buy a book we could borrow in the library? Should we keep pets and pay expensive bills for the vet?
    Is there even a line?

  3. There aren’t easy answers to this question. If we gave all our excess –and by excess I mean that which is not necessary to keep us minimally fed, clothed and housed (and as you noted, our minimum here is pretty maximum) then those whose livings depend on our consumption of extras–like cameras and music and clothes–would not have jobs.

    I have a friend who used to work for a manufacturer of high-end children’s clothes. The company started here in NO in a lady’s living room, but expanded to the point that it rented space in a business area and employed about 10 people, at least some at middle class wages. They had an outlet store at which they sold leftover clothes and fabric. One day, after the decision had been made to move the manufacturing end of the business offshore–the costs of labor made even high-end clothes too expensive to make here–a nun came into the store and tried to convince the manager to donate fabric to her project–teaching the poor somewhere offshore to sew and to sell the clothes to Americans. The manager explained that projects like that were why he was losing his job in a few months.

    I certainly believe in charity but our purchases provide for others as well.

    • Yes, this is exactly why I struggle. If we all quit purchasing, then things would spiral southward for the entire world, instead of just for certain portions of it.

  4. BTW, does anyone know how to convince WordPress that my “real” name is RAnn and that I don’t want it to log me in as lizzy185 (my first use of WP was to set up a long-forgotten blog for my daughter).

  5. Helen

    I was just thinking about this very thing when I was getting things ready for Jeff to take to church to give to the impromptu shower the contemporary choir coupland their new baby. We have so much STUFF for Lucy. I have only purchased 5% of it – the rest was from baby showers and gifts people brought by, or from garage sales (or second hand from friends). Even though I don’t have the self-consumer guilt, I do have the STUFF guilt. We have been so blessed with Lucy’s arrival and health and are so overwhelmed with all the STUFF we now own. I sent Jeff to church with four bags for M&C. And those were boy clothes we obviously don’t need and duplicates of things we have two or three of.

  6. Kathleen, you bring up such good points. I have no answer, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. I’m going to have to ponder this – balancing fulfillment and charity and consumption…

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