I woke up in the middle of the night from a deeply disturbing dream about turkey legs. Not the kind of turkey leg you find on your Thanksgiving turkey, but those big honkers you get at carnivals and Renaissance fairs, deep fried. I’ve never had one, but for some reason the image of people wandering around gnawing on those mammoth things always sticks out to me. Probably because I’m wondering how they can eat the whole thing. And then I see the half-eaten remains sitting on an abandoned plate, or collecting flies in a trash can, or thrown away because it fell on the ground, and I think of everyone in the world who would eat it anyway, because they don’t have the luxury of throwing things away because they fell on the floor or they happen to be found in a trash can with flies on them.
I really struggle with the luxury that defines western life. On the one hand, all created things are good if used rightly, and I love, love, love good food, beautiful music, a good story, movies, and beautifully-decorated places. Atmosphere, food, trips to beautiful and exciting locations—these are things that enrich and elevate the soul. And frozen custard. Don’t forget frozen custard. And brownies. Dark chocolate. Lots of dark chocolate. A good steak, an easy-drinking glass of wine, and really good bread, flash-fried in oil and exploding in your mouth…
And yet I struggle so much with the abject, soul-crushing lack that defines existence in so many other parts of the world–and sometimes even here, hidden beneath our very noses. So many people live with virtually nothing, and here am I, as skimpy and miserly as I am, still living in ridiculous luxury, and complaining because my kids break things.
I remember an exchange between an uncle and a cousin, an exchange that has defined an awful lot of my world view, both in general and about parenting. It was about this village in some other part of the world that my cousin (I think) had visited—Africa, maybe? I can’t remember now. Anyway, in this village, the two parts of town were separated by an abandoned, but still live, mine field. People knew the safe path through that mine field, even the small children, and they stuck to it. My uncle couldn’t understand why they didn’t just chuck rocks into it until they blew up all the mines. My cousin said there was no need. Kids were capable of learning much more than we in the west gave them credit for.
It’s such a different approach to life, it’s almost unimaginable. We live in a crazy clutter because we have so much, and yet we constantly envy those who have more. Me, my kids, you, your spouses—all of us. I, for example, tend to consider it an act of virtue to keep using an iPad 2 instead of replacing it. Gasp! It is almost SIX YEARS OLD!
And then I think of those people in that village in Wherever, Third World, with their mine field, and I think…oh, man. Does anyone actually need an iPad at all? Can I possibly justify upgrading when so many people are slowly starving to death? Isn’t it all just “chasing after the wind,” from the concerts and movie passes right down to the books I am working so hard to get published?
I often think we just spend too damn much money on too damn much stuff that doesn’t matter. Pardon my language. Dancing fountains in the middle of the desert. I mean, really?
And yet, if people didn’t spend so much money and buy so many things, wouldn’t our economy collapse and we, too, would be struggling for survival?
I suppose this is what Jesus meant when he said “the poor you will always have with you.”
Some people are called to eschew luxury and even much of what would be considered necessities, to wear clothes that are still perfectly good although they went out of fashion a decade or two ago, to eat very little and do without almost everything by choice, in solidarity with the poor. I often wonder if I am called to that and am just too in love with luxury to be willing to do it. Where is the line between planning for a safe future and hoarding what belongs, by Christian duty, to the poor? Is there any virtue in miserliness if I don’t funnel much of what I save into helping those who have nothing?
These are the questions that cause me to live my life in an unending tug of war. I would love to know that I’m not alone, to know how others have found peace amid questions of have, have not, and Christian discipleship.