What is enough?
As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough.
(Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk)
This week I spoke with an old friend. She spent this past year living for months at a time in West Africa. As she prepared to go, like most of us would, she packed her most essential essentials into a backpack as a carry on for her flight. She then carefully chose the remaining items she would need during her long stay and packed them in her suitcase.
But her suitcase never arrived. It was sent to another location and she lived the proceeding months out of what she had packed in her backpack.
“I guess I didn’t need all that stuff after all,” is all she had to say.
. . .
I’ve been skimming through Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical, On Care For Our Common Home (as a total side note this document is a strong contender for next year’s Liturgy of Life reading list, so if you have thoughts about it in either direction let me know. It is something that a year ago I would never have imagined myself even looking at and now I’m loving it).
“. . . the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.”
Any of us who have been in a Wal-mart basically ever, but especially over the holidays, can probably agree to that.
“When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs.
I recently wrote about how our clothing industry is an example of this very thing and our food industry is right there as well, the exploitation of the lives of others is deeply ingrained into our consumerism culture.
Now the hard thing is that in between reading Norris and Francis, I am also updating my Amazon wishlist for my upcoming birthday (no I won’t put a link to it, though it is tempting), and I really think I need a new bathing suit, mine is just not holding up to the daily visits to the pool with Zenie, and I need a new bread knife, I bake all of the time and I have never had even a half decent one, and along with those there are about 20 other great books and other useful and/or beautiful things. And in my gut I’ll tell you really, I really do need this stuff, (I mean if I don’t have an electric grain grinder how am I going to make homemade flour for our family?)
But if I’m not willing to simplify then who is?
If we as the church don’t learn to live within limits then who will?
We can’t learn what enough is by looking around, all we see are new housing developments and car showrooms and a barrage of marketing which is constantly at work convincing us that taking a step to minimize is radical even un-American.
Pope Francis chimes in,
“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. . . No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.“
Maybe we have to look again at The Rule of St. Benedict (he at least as a good track record with thousands of people still using his rule 1,500 years after he wrote it) to create a set of standards, a rule of life that will let us live in moderation. Or maybe we have to go, like Norris did to the tree less plains of South Dakota or like my friend did to the remote lands of West Africa to learn that contentment comes from God and experiencing Him in the world, not through accumulating stuff. I hope for me it will be moving to South Texas, the land of unending summer and year long mosquitoes. And maybe I could just wear an old cut off pair of jeggings to the pool and get a decent second hand bread knife at the Good Will.
I know I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that I would rather my generation be known for rejecting a culture defined by insatiable consumerism than for embracing it. And I know it starts with me.
This post is part of a series of reflections on The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris which we are reading as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group. We would love to hear from you or have you join in and read and ponder along with us. Thanks for being here.