Let's be clear: I just got this phone. I didn't want to get a new phone. I was perfectly happy with the old Samsung I had for two and a half years before that. It was a good phone, until I wore out the battery and it couldn't be replaced. My old phone never ran out of storage. But my new phone, which is supposed to be so much better and cooler than my old phone, ran out of storage within three months, to the point that it couldn't transact something as simple as a text message. Are you kidding me?
My husband assured me I just had to go buy a memory card to put in my phone, no big deal. This was helpful information; I was at my wits' end trying to figure out what else I could do with my useless phone. So, fine. The solution is not the problem. The problem is that we, like millions of other people, are paying a gross amount of money to a cellular company that epitomizes greed and consumerism and is increasingly monopolizing our lives, forcing us into upgrades, payment plans, extra fees, and services we don't want or need. Now, on top of that, the stupid phone sold to me isn't even capable of its most basic function of sending and receiving communications between human beings.
So not only did I waste an evening last week messing with my stupid phone, but let's not forget, there's still someone out there who texted me that night and has not received a response. Someone out there can only assume I'm ignoring them, just because I'm trapped in a consumer cycle of buying things that require me to buy more things in order to use my things.
Today, over lunch, I went and bought the memory card. Fine. Another $30 into my phone; a lunch break wasted moving more files from Point A to Point B; more hours of my work life spent earning money to pay for something I didn't want to buy. Petty complaints, you say? Darn right. That's exactly why it frustrates me so much—and disturbs me so much. Because the answer our consumer culture gives us is that it's no big deal... everybody else has to deal with it, too... just go with the flow. And that's exactly how we go on selling our souls for our things, one thing at a time.
And this isn't one of those overly glorified "back in my day" expositories about the moral superiority of previous generations, either. I may be on the oldest possible end of the Millennial spectrum, but I am, in fact, a Millennial, and I have never, ever, had a single thing handed to me on a silver spoon. So there.
My entire youth experience was shadowed by financial anxiety, debt, and the words, "No, we can't afford that," and guess what? I lived. Now listen, my mom went out of her way to devise unique learning opportunities for me, encouraging creative activities that challenged my brain and my imagination. By the age of eleven, I knew how to cook, bake, garden, can vegetables, crochet, draw, paint, write stories, ride a horse, and shoot a gun. I was swimming, biking, playing baseball and basketball, judging livestock, building tree forts, reading classic literature, playing piano, walking dogs, and selling magazine subscriptions to earn my own spending money. My folks provided opportunities for me to learn these skills and engage in these activities at great personal cost to them, in terms of constant social, relational, and financial stress.
See, even being raised fully aware and understanding that our circumstances were simply different from everyone else's, and being a kid who would happily prefer to go play all day long outside with a couple of sticks and a stray cat anyway, I was still a significant source of the anxiety and debt incurred by my folks. After all, to participate in American parental society, parents are expected, by default, to be resourced in certain respects, such as the assumed capacity to purchase basic school supplies and pay for one's children to get the team uniform, the musical instrument, the gym shoes, and the cafeteria lunch. So even by the standards of Oldham, South Dakota, we weren't "good enough" to be welcomed into community.
It wasn't great. My family went through a lot of mean and unfair things. I wish my folks didn't have to go through all of the heartache, rejection, and ulcers in order for me to learn the lessons I've come to appreciate as an adult. That's not to say it was all other people's fault, of course. Not all of our household decisions were wise. Many actions were taken in haste, desperation, and simple want. But I grew up knowing the difference between the things that mattered and the things we could go without. I grew up knowing how to pick a goal, work toward it, look forward to it, and celebrate it. I grew up appreciating the principle that a splurge today means a sacrifice tomorrow. I grew up in a world where Dairy Queen was a rare treat, earned by being good at the dentist, and Pizza Hut was achieved by working hard at the Accelerated Reading program. Things like tickets to concerts, trips to amusement parks, or summers at camp were nearly unthinkable luxuries—formative privileges I got to experience now and then through the generosity of churches and youth groups. And because they were rare, I will never forget those experiences.
This question keeps coming back to haunt me. How subtly and perversely things can take over our entire lives... even if, as in my case, things are the last thing on earth we even want in our lives.
- Could You Survive Poverty?
- Could You Survive Middle Class?
- Could You Survive Upper Class?
I wasn't surprised that I failed the upper class quiz with flying colors, since I don't have the least bit of interest in the kind of lifestyle referenced therein. What I did find startling and a little dismaying was the realization that I have, over the years of my adult life, without really noticing or meaning to, worked my way into a pretty stereotypical middle class mentality. Somewhere along the way, I accidentally achieved what my sociology textbook defines as "vertical mobility." And that's disorienting.
In my head, I still feel like a working girl, but in my outward life, I'm alarmed by how easily I can absorb many of the expectations and assumptions of a "resourced" person dealing with other "resourced" people. Yet there's a certain cognitive dissonance to it, in that I resonate more with the "under-resourced" person, and I still view the resources available to me as an insanely generous gift of God.
For my sociology class, I interviewed several board members and pastors of my church for a paper on poverty. One of the questions I asked was "How is our faith community resourced to reach the under-resourced?" One of our pastors stressed our need to remember, as those who are spiritually resourced, "our own spiritual poverty before the Lord."
Ohh, how loudly that spoke to me. No matter what physical resources I've been given, no matter what I have to offer a world in need, I am, in myself, spiritually destitute. In faith, I live in open and unashamed need of the Lord—and He is a Lord who gives and takes away.
Yet everywhere I see the stranglehold things have over our collective actions, priorities, and relationships as human beings. It's not enough that we, as a society, have to spend the vast majority of the hours of our lives at work, getting money to get the things that are necessary to life in our society. We're also programmed to look at "wants" and call them "needs," so optional items become necessities and fleeting impulses classify as must-haves.
Then what? We're constantly consumed by activities and responsibilities related to our things. We spend our time getting things, putting things together, figuring things out, putting things away, arranging things, cleaning things, moving things, storing things, looking for things, fixing things, replacing things, getting things to put our things in, and getting more things to make our things work. We don't have time to do the things we want to do because we're too busy taking care of things we feel we have to do. We tell people we don't have time for them because we have things to deal with. We spend our time waiting for people to get done dealing with things so we can spend time with them. And we're not even satisfied with our things. None of our things are ever good enough or cool enough or new enough to make us happy. So we're always looking at other things and talking about other people's things and wanting different things. We never have everything we want, and as soon as we do get one of the things we want, we start talking about getting something better or something more. There's never any sense of accomplishment or celebration in achieving things, because everybody is already on to wanting the next thing. And no thing is ever enough to satisfy.
It's frightening how easily things can take over our lives—rich or poor, whether we can afford them or not. The "haves" are too busy with the things they have, and the "have-nots" are too busy with the things they don't have. We hear a commonly misquoted version of I Timothy 6:10 saying, "Money is the root of all evil," implying that money itself is the problem, but what the verse actually says is "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (NIV). Our lust for the wealth we don't have is just as destructive to our spiritual conditions as our greed for the wealth we do have. A writer of Proverbs captures the tension perfectly:
Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, "Who is the Lord?"
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9)
I want eye contact. I want time spent asking, listening, inquiring, sharing, exploring, understanding, responding, praying. I'm less interested in fixing problems than I am in keeping company. I don't care if the dishes are in the sink or I have holes in my socks or the cable isn't working. I want to know and be known. And the things of this world are always—constantly, actively, intentionally—working to stop that from happening. The world wants to turn our eyes toward meaningless things, and we are desperately in need of Christ to keep our eyes fixed on Him. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3) Today, seeing more and more of the riches earned from growing up "poor," I pray we choose to take more time to appreciate our poverty before the Lord.