Tag Archives: Media

Living With Less in the Land of More

Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.

The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.

Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.

Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.

Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.

Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.

Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.

Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.

There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.

Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.

Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

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The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!

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The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”

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So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

Affluenza: Causes

The second part of the book Affluenza considers the causes of the disease of consumerism. Honestly it seemed somewhat lacking in depth. This is a complicated issue. Consider simply the question “What are the causes of poverty?” Books upon books have been written trying to describe the causes of one of the symptoms of our consumer society, economic inequality. Yet we seem no closer to a consensus.

What about the debt culture in North America? Some blame consumer behavior that fuels this spiral. Others blame the banks and corporations that advertise and offer these products. Still others blame government laws and regulations that permit and even incentive these kinds of products and consumer behavior that stimulates our growth economy. Certainly the cause lies somewhere in the convergence of these three culprits. Has this gotten us any closer really to understanding the causes of affluenza?

But industrial leaders in the 1920s had their own religion, the gospel of consumption. A reduction in working hours, they believed, might bring the whole capitalist system to its knees. Increased leisure, Harvard economist Thomas Carver Nixon warned, was bad for business: “There is no reason to believe that more leisure would ever increase the desire for goods…If it should result in more gardening, more work around the home in making or repairing furniture, painting and repairing the house and other useful avocations, it would cut down the demand for the products of our wage paying industries.” (142-143)

The answer to the causes of the disease of affluenza, I believe, lies in a deeper understanding of the system itself. The authors of the book sometimes drop the metaphor of disease for my preferred metaphor of religion. I wonder if it has any more explanatory power than the metaphor of disease. In terms of causes it might help reveal underlying motivating factors embedded in the system. The point I take home from this quote and others from advertising executives is that the idea that problems we face are inherent in the system. In order to deal with the problems we are encountering in terms of poverty, resource exhaustion, rates of stress, anxiety, depression and suicide, climate change, etc., we must face the fact that the system is designed to get exactly these results.

Consumerism: Disease or Religion?

The book (which was originally a series on PBS) Affluenza uses the metaphor of disease to try and understand the modern world, in particular the consumerism of North American culture. Following this metaphor the book is divided into three sections: symptoms, causes and treatments. Among other things the book is a pretty amazing compilation of interesting facts and statistics about our consumer lifestyles.

I have used the metaphor of religion to describe consumerism. Even though disease is the prevailing metaphor throughout this book, the authors also see the spiritual aspects of the consumer religion. I would like to share some of the statistics, quotes and insights I found most interesting and try to connect them to the idea of consumerism as a religion.

Shopping Fever Shopping is certainly the primary activity of the consumer religion, and the first symptom of the affluenza disease. Numbers and statistics about how much we buy and spend are staggering, but this one in particular really stood out.

In 1986 America still had more high schools than shopping centers. In less than twenty years later, we have more than twice as many shopping centers (46,438) as high schools (22,180). (13)

This book was published in 2005. So, I’m not sure how the financial crisis has affected these numbers if at all, but I would guess that it hasn’t improved much. The authors then make this astute observation, “In the Age of Affluenza…shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values” (13). Perhaps some more detailed cultural anthropology would need to be done to prove this assertion, but it certainly rings true. Nevertheless, we tend to view shopping malls as economic rather than cultural symbols. Are these our modern temples, synagogues, mosques or churches? We certainly spend more time there than at centers of worship.

Chronic Congestion It is clear that we buy more stuff than we need. Whenever we move into a bigger house, because we’re running out of space, instead of enjoying the extra space we buy more stuff until we have to either move to an even larger house or perhaps turn to the burgeoning self-storage industry.

There are now more than 30,000 self-storage facilities in the country, offering over 1.3 billion square feet of relief…The industry has expanded fortyfold since the 1960s, from virtually nothing to $12 billion annually, making it larger than the U.S. music industry. (32)

This fact blew my mind. When you think about the biggest corporations, industries and big money, do you think of self-storage? Certainly not. The music industry would certainly be higher on most people’s list. Yet the numbers don’t lie. If consumerism is a religion, perhaps self-storage is the place where we put our holy objects. We have “set apart” these spaces for our stuff and made it so important that this industry can thrive.

The Stress of Excess The amount of extra stuff we have also comes with a certain burden.

We thought the opposite was supposed to be true: that advances in technology, automation, cybernation, were supposed to give us more leisure time and less working time…In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcomittee heard testimony that estimated a workweek of from fourteen to twenty-two hours by the year 2000. We got the technology, but we didn’t get the time. [quoting Staffan Linder, Swedish economist, warning about the "harried leisure class"] “Economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time. As the volume of consumption goods increases in the scarcity of time, requirements for the care and maintenance of these goods also tends to increase, we get bigger houses to clean, a car to wash, a boat to put up for the winter, a television set to repair, and have to make more decisions on spending.” (41)

It seems that our economic indicators and measurements don’t account very well for this scarcity. Certainly we like to say that time is valuable and people should be compensated for their time, but it doesn’t seem that the effects of this lack of time are accounted for. In religion time is set aside for particular holy days, where other activities, like economics, are set aside. More and more, however, the consumer religion encroaches on these sacred times. Sundays are no longer set aside for Christians, and when other religions request space for Sabbath or prayer practices, it is mighty inconvenient for the consumer culture which does not recognize these as viable activities.

Family Convulsions The effects on the family of this lack of time and emphasis on stuff seems obvious to me, but we have come to live with these contradictions. The authors point in particular how conservatives embody such cintradictions.

“The contradiction between wanting rapid economic growth and dynamic economic change and at the same time wanting family values, community values, and stability is a contradiction so huge that it can only last because of an aggressive refusal to think about it.” (52 quoting former Reagan administration official with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Edward Luttwak)

Social Scars The disease of affluenza has social and global implications. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World and former business professor at Stanford and Harvard, worked for Harvard Business School, Ford Foundation and USAID in Africa, Asia and Central America says,

“My career was focused on training business executives to create the equivalent of our high consumption economy in countries throughout the world. The whole corporate system in the course of globalization is increasingly geared up to bring every country into the consumer society. And there is a very strong emphasis on trying to reach children, to reshape their values from the very beginning to convince them that progress is defined by what they consume.” (87)

This is what the church calls spiritual formation and involves catechism, bible study, confirmation classes or other forms of discipleship. This man is what the church calls “missionaries”. His mission is the mirror image of evangelism efforts by missionaries in foreign contexts. He is seeking to make converts in the developing world, saving their souls by selling them the American Dream.

It seems crucial to me to understand that this kind of “education” takes place in order to spread the gospel of consumerism and it functions in the same way religious instruction does (or any other form of ideological education or indoctrination). I confess that religious education is propaganda, in much the same way that David Korten describes his work spreading consumerism. The difference is between destructive and healthy or constructive ideologies.

Resource Exhaustion I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing this topic. So, I will just share two of the statistics that struck me.

Dividing the planet’s biologically productive land and sea by the number of humans…[we] come up with 5.5 acres per person. That’s if we put nothing aside for all other species. “In contrast,” says [Swiss engineer Mathis] Wackernagel. “the average world citizen used 7 acres in 1996…That’s over 30 percent more than we can regenerate. Or in other words, it would take 1.3 years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year.” (96)

More than 20,000 species go extinct every year causing many scientists to proclaim that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction and the largest extinction in the planet’s history. (98)

Industrial Diarrhea I just really liked this phrase. The chapter is about the waste that industry produces.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed The fact that rates of depression and anxiety disorders continue to grow exponentially should be a sign to us that something is wrong, but instead we simply medicate the problems so we can function in a sick society.

Psychologist Richard Ryan points to scores of studies–his own among them–showing that material wealth does not create happiness… In the human species, happiness comes from achieving intrinsic goals like giving and receiving love. Extrinsic goals like monetary wealth, fame, and appearance are surrogate goals, often pursued as people try to fill themselves up with “outside-in” rewards. (115)

Isn’t this the goal of most people? To be happy? Isn’t this why we pursue the consumer religion (or any religion, ideology or system of belief)? To find meaning and fulfillment? So, if it obviously doesn’t work, then why do we keep doing it? While results are not everything when it comes to religion, I think it’s worth asking if what we’re doing or believing is producing the actual results we want. This is not about efficiency, but integrity. In a world so saturated by media and advertising the most difficult task may be to actually identify what it actually is that we want. Then we can begin to deconstruct the siren call of consumerism as something that fails to meet any of our most basic human needs.