Thursday Themes is an ongoing series of posts focused on given topics or passages of scripture relevant to adoption, knowing God, and learning to live simply and love radically. Please feel free to tweet theme suggestions to me @MamaMcAfee or leave a suggestion in the comments section.
In the Live Simply series, we're exploring what it means to live simply in every aspect of our lives. Living simply is a way of life that radically redefines how you see the world and how you interact with it. It's almost never easy, but always rewarding. And at the end of the day, those who choose to pursue simple, I believe, will be far better people for it and will know God in a much deeper way than when complex got in the way.
Living simply is about what you buy or rather what you don't buy.
No doubt most of us know about buying organic and green and free trade products by now. Maybe not as many of us know about buying free-range and slave free and socially responsible investing.
These days, we've backed the modern ethical consumer into a corner.
Do I buy all local? Do I buy only organic? Do I buy fair trade everything?
But if I buy all local, I'm not supporting the global economy and helping developing countries develop. If I buy all organic, I may not be supporting my local farmers. If I buy all fair trade, I might just find out that fair trade isn't always traded so fairly.
Maybe if I just avoid Walmart and the controversy surrounding them.
Maybe if I just go to local businesses.
Maybe if I just stay home and barricade myself and avoid all contact with the outside world, then I will not have to worry about accidentally making an unethical purchase.
And then there's the guilt...
I bought something really, really unethically made, but I didn't know. I didn't know until someone sent me a copy of that article. I didn't know until that Facebook campaign. I didn't know until that reporter told me. I didn know it way unethically made and now what do I do. Do I take it back to the store? Do I hide it away so no one will ever see it and shame me for purchasing such an unethically made product? Do I throw it out? Do I donate it? Do I send money to the those who were harmed by my unknowing unethical decision? What, oh what, do I do?
And thus we find the modern consumer trapped in the great ethics paradox of the post-modern, do-good-at-all-costs but not too much cost world.
Hmm, let's step back and take a few deep breaths and let our guilt abate a little.
Okay, here's what I think the living simple response is to the overwhelming malaise of post-modern consumerism:
Consume what you need and occasionally what you want and let's make a pact to return to moderation in our consumerism.
There was a time when I beat my brains out researching every product I planned to purchase to make sure--to know--it was ethically made.
I shopped only at Whole Foods and other health food stores (even though I couldn't really afford it), thinking I was safe, thinking it was Whole Foods and so every product on the shelf must be whole and blissfully free of ethical dilemmas. Then I found out they were not all blissfully anything.
I read story after story and talked incessantly with friends about the latest news on a particular product, entwining myself and others around me in a very sticky web of ethical dilemmas.
I lived within an unsustainable bubble of avoidance and fear.
But then I went to South Africa and I lived among rural people--some of whom lived on the edges of extreme poverty, some who lived only in poverty and some who lived moderate middle class lives. And all of them, they consumed.
They consumed, not caring where their products came from, only if the price was fair. They consumed without the guilt and the shame I faced in every decision. They consumed cheap, Chinese products without a second thought. They consumed what they needed and occasionally what they wanted and they had no shame or guilt or stress about it.
I was envious. I wanted to do the same. I wanted to not think about how my every purchase would affect someone else. I wanted to not worry about how I could possibly stretch my tiny Peace Corps stipend to purchase more expensive, ethically produced products. I wanted to consume what I needed and occasionally what I wanted and then not worry about it.
And eventually I would.
Probably it was easier in South Africa--fewer options to begin with and for the most part food was local. And all those cheap Chinese products, people needed them. They needed them to be affordable. They needed them to be accessible and everywhere. And I adapted because I needed them to--cheap, affordable wonders of modern convenience that made my life in the rural areas just a little more doable.
Coming back to the US, I think the same principles apply.
Westerners, let's face up to it, we consume too much. We consume way more than we will ever need or use in a lifetime.
We consume and we consume and we fill up our days with consuming.
We convince ourselves wants are needs. We use shopping as therapy. And in the process we build up mountains of debt.
Really, consumerism is an area where living simple collides with moderation.
Moderation in all things--especially consumerism.
I think if we all consumed with a bit more moderation--if we all consumed a bit less--a lot of the ethical dilemmas we face in our purchases would vanish.
The simple truth of the laws of economics:
Factory farms, slave labor, unfair wages, over use of pesticides--all of these things exist in such great quantities because demand is so high. As demand rises, supply has to rise to meet the demand. As demand lowers, so will supply and with it its unethical counterparts.
Settling into my new home, I've purchased a lot of things. Some were things I believe I needed. Some were things I wanted. Some were simply impulsive.
But I'm trying. I'm trying to consume less.
When I can, I buy organic or green or slave free or whatever. Otherwise, I just consume less, trying to identify the difference between a need and a want. Trying to make the want purchases less often. Trying to reuse as often as possible. Trying to recycle when I can't reuse.
And somedays it's really hard because I have a teeny-tiny little TV and I got really used to my parents 32" TV when I was living with them, and I really want to not have to get up off the couch, get closer to the screen and squint to read the guide. (I know, I could keep my reading glasses readily available, but I'd rather just have a bigger TV.) But I can't really afford a newer, grander TV right now, especially with adoption fees looming, and I don't really need a larger TV because my little one works just fine and spends most of its days in the off position anyway.
But I really want one.
So when the temptation rises I've got to ask myself, will I choose to live more simply? Will I talk myself down from the Labor Day sales? Will I willingly choose to consume less? Will I be willing at the grocery store with that one particular food I love but I don't really need and Target with that movie I think I loved and is on sale for a mere five dollars and at the office supply store with that oh-so-tempting pencil cup that is so much better than the make shift one currently on my desk?
Living simply in your purchases requires self-control. It requires stepping outside yourself to recognize the difference between a need and a want. It requires saying "no" to wants and occasionally needs in order to live more responsibly.
Moreover I find, even though it requires a lot more self-control, consuming less is far less stressful and far less shaming than trying to live in the boundaries we've set for ourselves as to what it means to consume ethically. Besides it might end up being a bit more ethical anyway and a bit more of what Jesus meant when he told us not to store up our treasures on earth.
Read other post in the Live Simply series: