Two Ways I Tried Living Without Buying (for a month)

As promised, I will tell a bit about with my struggle to practice creative activities instead of consumptive ones. In my last post, I said “The problem is that in American culture today, we wrongly place consuming as at the top of the hierarchy as though consuming food, entertainment, pleasure, is what will make us the happiest.”

A lot of people might disagree with that because consuming is not overtly placed at the top. We don’t actually say “money will make you happy”; “eating this artisan cupcake will make you happy”; “having a sculpted body will make you happy”; “having an enormous house will make you happy.” Those are underlying messages, not the overt ones.

For instance, we say, “Let’s focus on valuing local artisans and farmers.” But it is carried out by purchasing their products. Noticeably, there is no encouragement to actually learn an artisanal trade or practice some actual farming. Now, there is nothing wrong with buying things we need and trying to spend ethically. But ethics do not boil down to spending habits. And celebrating time and holidays is about much more than buying festive decorations.

Consider this: “Spring is wonderful. Embrace it; plant your garden; Come to the Home Depot Garden Shop.” (I don’t mean to target Home Depot; I like their Garden Shop.) But in many ways, our “valuing” or “celebrating” is enacted only through buying.

This is a very real struggle in my own life as I struggle to live within budget (for practical reasons), but also as I struggle with my relationship with money on the whole–as a Christian, I know the warnings Jesus gives against it and I am conscious of the vast material blessings that I usually take for granted. My trust in God ought not to be defined by my outward well-being.

Ok, so two examples. 1) I finished our taxes–I always do our family taxes myself even though I hate it, so I said, husband “I would like a reward for finishing this wretched job.” The first thought that came to my mind was, “We got a nice refund; I’ll buy myself a new dress from ModCloth.” BUT WAIT! My first thought of a reward was to spend some money, buy a product, an action that flew directly in the face of the values I tried to enact in doing our taxes: frugality, thrift, self-sufficiency.

So I thought about it some more and it took effort of think of something that didn’t include a purchase, but I succeeded eventually, “Honey, I’d like a massage.” And he obliged. 🙂 The point is how difficult it was for me to think up a non-consumptive reward. But when I did, the result was much more pleasing. We actually got to bond instead of having me complete an economic transaction over my computer screen.

Example #2. I wanted to give gardening a real shot this year with my little kids.

When I thought about how I would do this: the first thing that popped into my head was: first I need to pay someone to trim the bushes so we’ll have space; but then I need new pots, planting soil, seeds, tools, and some cute gardening boots for me and the kids wouldn’t hurt.

BUT WAIT. That would add up to hundreds of dollars–again, flying the face of the values I was trying to enact by gardening: getting in touch with the earth, appreciating creation, playing outside, growing food for our family’s health and budget, self-sufficiency. So often, I think of a new project, go out and excitedly buy tons of stuff for it–then half-heartedly or never actually follow through. Does that happen to you too?

So, in an effort to reform my habits and actually enact creative activity, not merely consumption–I looked around the house. We already had a few pots. We already had dirt and even some potting soil. I had bought gardening gloves years before that had never seen use. We had hedging sheers–I used them to trim the bushes myself–shocking, I know. Then I did something crazy, I asked others if I could borrow things. My mother-in-law was happy to give us some seeds. My friend lent a powered hedge trimmer (which is super fun by the way). My parents lent a ladder for the taller bushes. Our yard is tidy; our seeds are growing and I never spent a penny!

But this is new for me, and I am trying to practice this new mode more and more because it is strange and unfamiliar. It also relies on the super-supportive community we are blessed with; we have both families nearby, lots of friends and active Church parishes. Spending less is easy when we can tap supportive communities and are willing to do our own work.

This aspect of frugality sheds light on how consumerism (buying or selling a product for everything) has thrived in our culture as we focus on individuals and ignore or displace the wider families and communities from whence we come. Consumerism promises that products can make life easy and happy, filling the place of supportive human networks (or tribes). But with a tribe (or supportive human network), we can live a good life and be pretty happy with a lot less money.

We say we value people, but so often our culture stands ready to replace a person with a product. So I am trying to consciously live on less money (not including our mortgage, of course) because it makes more demands on me: it requires me to perform actions myself (to cook instead of purchase a ready-made meal) and it asks that I seek help from friends and family. Performing those creative actions and building those relationships through seeking help actually make me a better, happier person. I have not been given a fish, but learned to fish.

To quote someone who is usually considered “liberal” and therefore perhaps a bit startling for me to quote (though I don’t prefer to be labeled “conservative,” but rather just truth-seeking and Catholic), I would like to cite a passage from food-writer Michael Pollan’s “Cooked,” a book about the social history of cooking.

“In a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization–against the total rationalization of life…[It is] to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption…It is to reject the debilitating notion that, at least while we’re at home, production is work best done by someone else, and the only legitimate form of leisure is consumption.”

Yes. As he puts it, we are in general over-specialized; we tend to think: “I have one skill that I get paid for–this is my job. I then exchange the money I receive for this skill for all the other goods and services I need.” That works. But it works better for humans to be more directly involved in more of their own lives; developing multiple talents, providing for themselves as best they can: gardening, cooking, building, writing, problem-solving, a whole host the various activities that life demands. We become more the more we create and perform ourselves. How much more American could one get? That’s what the pioneers did; they had things hard, but I’m sure they would say life is worth living more often than we do.

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3 Modes of Life: Creating, Relating, Consuming

By no means do I pretend to have this all figured out, but it has been central to my thought process for a few years now that there are three main modes of activities in which we engage as humans: 1. Creating 2. Relating 3. Consuming I believe that we are happiest, in the truest sense, when we balance the first two (creating and relating) as is optimal according to our personality, temperament and vocation, and we when keep the third (consuming) tightly disciplined, engaging only as necessary. The problem is that in American culture today, we wrongly place consuming as at the top of the hierarchy as though consuming food, entertainment, pleasure, is what will make us the happiest. But it’s false, which is why we are so often miserable and slightly-confused. At the risk of over -simplifying, here are basic descriptions of each: 1. Creating – activities we would perform for their own sake, activities that demand work and result in growth in excellence of ability or character. This includes the traditional fine arts such as drawing, writing, dancing, etc; but also activities that create an excellence or skill such as athletics, gardening, prayer, mathematics, the trades such as woodworking, the sciences. There are many others. 2. Relating – basically socializing, but on a deeper level. It is those times when we build up the life-giving relationships that make life and the creative activities meaningful and worth doing. It includes conversations with good friends, spending time with your spouse and family, intimacy. I think parenting falls somewhere between relating and creating. 3. Consuming – things we take in such as eating or things done for entertainment: movie watching, browsing the web, buying stuff, etc. In one sense, there is a very necessary level of consuming: we must eat; additionally, relaxation and recreation are goods when balanced with our workloads and duties. But consuming is usually the activity that tempts us to overdo it, and the activity that wreaks havoc on us when we do overdo it. (Ie–We eat way to much junky stuff and gain weight; or we get addicted to reading silly internet articles (like this one) and then find that we do not have the discipline to read an actual novel. Or we buy so much stuff that we don’t know how to get by or mark time without buying stuff.) Doubtless, there are many activities that don’t fit easily into my categories–such as showering–and I’m working on that, but overall, I think they are helpful. I find it a tragedy that we are so focused on consuming–even times when we don’t realize it. It robs our joy and leaves us feeling empty without knowing why. Consider Christmas–Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, come to save us and bring us to eternal life. Presents are super and fun, but most of America celebrates Christmas by buying stuff: gifts, decorations, sweaters, chocolates, toys, lights, lawn ornaments, etc. All that stuff is well and good—until it becomes the focus and the deeper meaning is lost. No amount of miniature porcelain Christmas villages can offer us meaning. Conversely, we can have a meaningful, loving Christmas without tons of money. Often we desire the ability to consume, but then find the experience unfulfilling. What we really needed was meaningful work. We think consuming will make us happy. We think having a huge house will make us happy, but in reality, we are happier when we spend our time and energy caring for the home we have to make it a good place for our family. See my post: Happiness is not about getting what we want. In general, I think people would be happier if more friendships and socializing was organized more around creating and less around consuming. Consider how often we see movies with friends, go shopping or out to eat. Again, nothing wrong with this–until it becomes the focus and we forget how to do anything else. What if we shared poems with friends? Ones we wrote or ones we read. What if we added prayer? Or played music? And this needn’t be elitist. It costs nothing to compose oral poems or to sing. Indeed, for most of human history, that’s how we entertained and related with one another. The difference between listening to a person on TV reading a poem and reading one ourselves is the formative effect the action has on us when we actually perform it. Everything we do, everything that we see, everything that happens to us shapes us. Performing an action–actually swimming or singing–makes us to be a certain way, makes us to be a certain type of person. That’s why memorizing is more valuable that just looking something up. If we have bother to memorize, internalize and perform an action, it is so much deeper, so much more formative and valuable than if we just watch someone else do it at increasingly removed technological distances. That’s why virtue and vice, sin and holiness matter. As Bruce Wayne learns in Batman Begins, “It’s not who I am on the inside that defines me, but what I do.” Our inner dispositions matter, but being a person manifests in the types of actions we perform. We cannot tell ourselves that we are good people even if we do empty things. This is not to say that who we are on the outside matters more than who we are on the inside, but rather that the two are more connected that we tend to realize. As Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas put it, “action follows upon being.” A thing or a person’s actions proceed from what or who they are. We will be happier when we perform actions, more of the creative and relating type, that are worth doing, which make us to be the persons we ought to be. So often, we say we value things but act a different way. For instance, we say we value people more than money, but often we judge others by their salary, job title or lack thereof. Looking at our actions reveals us for what we really are. And I am not immune. Up next I will discuss my struggle with expressing myself or fixing things by just buying something. I say I value the activity or the person and I end up with a purchase in a shopping bag. What happened? What types of activities don’t fit into my categories? What are your favorite creative activities? Do you agree that the creative activities make us happier?

“Just” A Mom: Beyond Having it all

New from me on the Truth and Charity Forum:

Just a Mom: Beyond Having it all

“The truth is: no one gets to have it all. Not a single human being has a perfect life devoid of dilemma and tragedy; we are absurd when we suggest that there could be a silver bullet that will deliver all the happiness we could ever desire this side of heaven.”

Unfortunately, our standard of “success” is usually public recognition or the number of zeros in a paycheck. The standard should be though a happy, purposeful life. The rearing of children is in fact fulfilling and important, and it can balanced in the evening hours with the pursuit of a talent.

Mothers are human beings just like other women and just like men who benefit and grow from the pursuit of excellence in a way that contributes to their flourishing, in a way that makes them better humans and therefore better mothers. We mothers of young children only benefit by sharing our experience and our gifts and encouraging one another to pursue excellence.

Click to read it all

One Way to Consecreate The World: A Blessingway for Every Baby

Pema, from Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, single-handedly rebuilds the earth’s population of Air Benders.

Yesterday I wrote about how it is the specific vocation of the laity to consecrate the temporal order to God.

One way I think we could make a huge pro-life witness would be to supplant the Baby Shower ritual celebration with more Blessingways.

Blessingways are celebrations for pregnant women and unborn babies that focuses on celebrating the pregnancy, pampering the mommy and welcoming the child. Typically every guest will bring some item that reminds them of the mom; this can be a bead, for instance, which would be strung into a bracelet or necklace for the guest of honor. Craftier women than me bring quilt squares which are sewn into a quilt for the baby.

Prayers, intentions, blessings can be said. The USCCB released in 2008 a Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb, which a priest or deacon can perform. But we could easily use the prayers, readings or intentions as part of our own prayers for the mother. It is so encouraging that they made this; here is an excerpt:

God, author of all life,
bless, we pray, this unborn child;
give constant protection
and grant a healthy birth
that is the sign of our rebirth one day
into the eternal rejoicing of heaven.
Lord, who have brought to this woman
the wondrous joy of motherhood,
grant her comfort in all anxiety
and make her determined
to lead her child along the ways of salvation

There are prayers for the father as well and Scripture passages. A Blessingway need not be specifically religious, but in my opinion, a spirituality rooted in the Faith of Christ makes it weightier, deeper and more meaningful.

Mommy can be pampered with henna designs on her belly, pedicures or anything else fun.

Gifts can be brought too, but aren’t the focus.

Most importantly, Blessingways are for every baby, first or tenth, not just the first the way showers tend to be.

Baby showers are fine; they are fun and cute, and they certainly fill a need. A first time mom does indeed need a crib-full of baby gear from carseats and strollers, which can get pricey, to bibs and onesies, which add up as well, and showers help young moms especially stock up without breaking the bank.

Acknowledging the good of baby showers, we should still emphasize Blessingways as a less materialistic counter-part. Having a baby is a material and medical event, but it is much more than that. It is a personal and spiritual even that will change forever the way a mother views the world, and a Blessingway celebrates those aspects better with a more personal group of friends and family with a clearer focus on the value of the baby and the mother.

Especially as Catholics, who tend to have more than the standard “two then through” number of children, conceiving the third can generate a very mixed social reception in non-Catholic circles. Thirds and beyond tend not to be celebrated much and as a mother, it can be a little sad and discouraging.

Blessingways help remind everyone that this new child is just as unique and wonderful a gift as the first one. The party is something to look forward to, just like the baby. In a pro-life community, there should be no pregnancy without a party.

Imagine how a Blessingway could impact a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy. The world tends to shun, shame and criticize these women, but she has made a courageous decision to keep the baby, and that child will be just as life-changing and perspective-altering a planned bundle of joy, or more so.

So in my sphere, that of wife and mother and Catholic, one place I can help consecrate the world to Christ is to through Blessingways, to celebrate every life. It reminds people that life is worthwhile and worthy celebrating!

Each of us are called especially to bring Christ to our unique place in the world. How can you consecrate your little patch of earth?

We are the Laity: The World is Our Oyster (to consecrate)

We Catholics are really good at criticizing bishops: they don’t enough; they are too soft; he didn’t speak out about this; he said too much about that, etc, etc.

Well, here is the truth: we are the lay faithful, and it is our job to consecrate the world to Christ. Do we have a problem with Obamacare? We can act. Is there a problem with Roe v. Wade? We can act. Is there more we can do for women facing unplanned pregnancies and for men and women living in poverty? We can act.

The Bishops offer spiritual guidance and trusted teaching authority so that we get the Faith right in belief, so that we can receive the sacraments and so that we are unified.

But it’s not their job to run around fixing all the problems in the secular realm. In fact, working in the secular realm and bringing the Faith there is the express role of the laity.

Here’s what the Catechism has to say about the laity

[The laity refers to] all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church. That is, the faithful, who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God, are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the World.”430

The vocation of lay people

898 “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.”431

899 The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church:

Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church. (897-899)

Hear that? We, the lay faithful, are also included in Christ’s threefold office of priest, prophet and king, though in a different way than that of the ordained priests. And we are especially called to bring the Gospel into the economic, political and social realm, which is precisely what we are always complaining about anyway.

As for the priestly office: ordained priests can perform the sacraments-they change bread and wine into the Body & Blood of Christ for us, the lay faithful, to consecrate us as the Church, to make us holy. The laity, on the other hand, consecrate the secular world: we, as the “front line” of the Church, bring the Gospel to the rest of the world, to places that need to hear the good news of Christ, everywhere: our homes, our work places, our communities, our governments, our economic policies and even our foreign policies. Wherever is closest to us, whichever things we are “closely associated” with, here we bring the Gospel.

So we can stop blaming the bishops for not doing our job. We need to do our job ourselves, respecting the guidance of the episcopate and embracing the active role demanded of us in worldly affairs.

Thoughts: Do you think lay Catholics do a good job of speaking on behalf of the Church in the secular world? I’m gonna wager that the answer leans toward the negative, though their are certain a few faithful and thoughtful voices. So what can we do better? For one thing, it will require that as Catholics, we put ourselves and our reputations on the line for the Faith; it will demand that to our friends, family members, colleagues and peers, we say: “Yes, I believe the teachings of the Church and I think they are worth following!”

It will also require that we know the Faith so that we can engage the world without losing our identity, so that we can answer questions about the Faith in a reasoned and balanced way neither staring at our toes in embarrassment nor burying difficulties in triumphalism.