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.