Category Archives: Observations

Shopaholism: Not So Very Flex Spending

Writing this blog, I should be more aware than I am that my morale is to some extent dependent on having some discretionary income. This week sharpened that awareness a bit.

Dickens has one of his characters say, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

That is, a dozen pennies are all that are between “happiness” and “misery.”

I was shocked to find this to be true — maybe not for happiness and misery in a deep sense, but at least for the distance between financial comfort and distress.

You know, if you have been reading this blog, that I have been unhappy at work, and that last month I went on a compensatory spree for things I enjoy, such as early-music concerts, Crane’s stationery (half off), and a trip to the nuns. I thought I could afford it all, and expected only some rueful feelings.

I just didn’t know how rueful until this week. Why, I wondered, was I having to debate whether to buy the $4 slice of Sicilian pizza or the $9 pasta dinner? (As you know, I live in an SRO without a kitchen, even a shared kitchen, so I tend to eat badly.)

In puzzlement at how my bank accounts had even less money than I expected, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t submitted last month’s prescriptions for flex spending reimbursement.

sicillianI was down by slightly more than four hours of gross income. That was all.

That’s too close a shave. Granted, the savings plan got fed as usual, as did the internet bill and the credit card and the loan, and the nuns received their donation for the visit. So compared to billions of people around the world, I am bellyaching. Still and all, to feel the lack of a mere four hours of gross income is way too close to hand to mouth living for me.

what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?

Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.

motherofgodnourisheroflife

Christ was a baby who needed milk

 

Progress report: One for one

VictoryI’m happy to report progress. This blog is helping me to relinquish my obsessions with wanting stuff. It provides repeated practice in renouncing things of many different sorts for many different reasons in many different ways. I’ve gone into a few of my older posts and said, “Oh, yeah, I used to really really want that for years… wow, I forgot.” This isn’t exactly conquest of my shopaholism, but it’s a little victory! I feel a bit freer on the inside, less bothered by spiderwebs of longing for objects. There are still tons of objects I want, but this blog is actually helping.

Now I’m trying something new. I’m going to balance buying something with getting rid of something. This feels uncomfortable. I’ve never been moderate in my management of belongings. I tend to either buy or get rid of stuff by the bag, by the box, or even more. Or I get rid of one single thing or buy one single thing, but not at the same time. Moderation and balance are a whole new ballgame. Or, to use the metaphor from early in this blog, this time I’m simultaneously letting out some hoarded water from the bathtub and letting some fresh new water in.

This plan is a little dicey, because I am buying a bible. I’ve written before about my fascination with bibles of various form factors, especially cute little bibles. (You can click here to see that post.) So I had hoped to be rid of the urge to buy more bibles. I don’t want to fall into a spell of enthusiasm and buy a boatload of various translations, or a parallel-text French-English bible, or that cute chunky edition…

However, as I told you, I read the Bible a lot online, on BibleGateway.com. Recently, the New International Reader’s Version caught my attention. (Click here to see a couple of verses in the NIRV compared to other translations.) And when I want to explore a translation, I want a physical book to flip through and page through.

NIrV with polka dotsI wrote half a blog post explaining how I chose not to buy this translation. I made fun of my wanting the jolly teal polka-dotted edition, and I tsk-tsked at the unscholarly simplified language in the NIRV (which is much easier than the translations I normally read, such as the NRSV). And I quoted myself: “God is not a genie to be captured in a bottle, and bibles are not toys.” That last is true, but I could not sincerely finish writing the post, because the more I wrote, the more I realized I do not want this bible out of shopaholism. I really do want to explore this translation.

Writing this blog is teaching me, slowly, how to distinguish the emotional sensations of shopaholism and hoarding. It is not easy, but it is becoming less difficult for me to tell when I actually want something for itself and when there are reasons not to get it.

I am beginning to sense that when I want to buy something in the right way, I feel a more level-headed, calmer, clear-cut set of interrogations compared to when I am longing for something. Do I really have the space? Do I really have the money? Will I have the time and commitment to respect this object and respect myself by using it, and using it well? Will I lay it aside because it turns into junk in my hands and I get bored with it? Is it worth devoting some of the minimal space in my tiny home to it? Will I have the willpower to give it away if it disappoints, even though I paid good money for it?

So this time I thought about it, and eureka! Why don’t I get rid of one of my least-read bibles? One for one at the same time! I know that those of you who don’t have hoarding and shopaholism problems are probably rolling your eyes at this big “discovery,” but it was a discovery for me!

My building has a tacitly agreed-upon freecycling space where we put small items we don’t want; anyone who wants can take them and after a couple of days, the building manager throws out anything left. This is the flat top of an unused radiator cover in the foyer — no clothes, very good for books, vases, bottles of perfume, and the like. It always looks neat, because if something is good quality, it gets picked up very quickly.

I put my telephone-book-sized six-pound Large Print NIV Archaeological Bible out there with a sticky saying “Great Christmas present!” I peeked a few hours later and it was gone. I felt relief. I should have gotten rid of that enormous bible long ago, because after I read a few pages I lost interest in it right away. (“But it was so expensive, and maybe I’ll make the time to study it, and I should learn what’s in it… and…”) It was even in its original box.

So, jubilantly, I ordered the (much smaller) NIRV, because even though my place is overstuffed with possessions, I was able to keep the situation from getting worse. Not exactly ascetic behavior, but self-disciplined.

One for one: A useful concept.

Black Friday preview

This 1:44 video made me incredibly sad. As an ascetic shopper, I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly get any good, satisfying, enjoyable merchandise under such circumstances, much less find a gift suited to a particular person; and I hope it is obvious to the reader that the free expression of unrestrained greed cannot be of any interior benefit at all to the participants. Turn your sound WAY down if you choose to watch.

%d bloggers like this: