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?

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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.

Thinking of buying? Think about buying.

This anonymous condolence verse is all wrong. We are not just our souls!

Loving friends! Be wise and dry
Straightway every weeping eye,
“What ye lift upon the bier
Is not worth a wistful tear.
‘Tis an empty seashell, — one
Out of which the pearl is gone;
The shell is broken, it lies there;
The pearl, the all, the soul, is here.”

Our souls are part of us along with our minds and bodies. Our selves are not just intellects inhabiting meaningless bodies, the way the above verse claims. However, on the other hand, we are more than chunks of meat that think and feel. We have both physical and nonphysical elements united together, each being (only) part of us.

The tragedy of death is not really that of the bereaved losing the deceased. The tragedy of death is the separation of the body, which is (merely) part of us, from the non-material element of our selves, which is also (merely) part of us. Death breaks us in two. Dead bodies are indeed worth weeping over, every bit as much as live bodies deserve to be loved and hugged and cared for.

This is on my mind in relation to, of all things, the “holiday” shopping frenzy. More than in previous years, I’ve been reading a lot of business news stories about Black Friday, Thanksgiving store openings, and the expected tens of millions of shoppers. This has led to some thought about some of the purposes of this blog.

Because of my belief that we are composed of both material and non-material elements, I mean two things when I examine an item closely in this blog. I say that goods can be good, that the material world is worth enjoying, that matter matters. But beyond this, I am also saying that the material world should be examined closely and enjoyed with real thoroughness, awareness, and, yes, suspicion. If you are going to own something, then really choose it, own it with respect, use it, enjoy it, appreciate it, and don’t let it own you. And real enjoyment of our possessions entails taking a close hard look at things we want but do not own yet. And so I take a close, appreciative, respectful look at things I long for but decide to deny myself. I do not blanket condemn the physical world.

However, the sickness of the holiday buying frenzy is that no objects are contemplated and examined for their goodness and their meaning; they are not appreciated or truly wanted; they are only grabbed at, seized, barely looked at for a minute or two. They are mere entertainment, never truly enjoyed.

This acquisitiveness, this greed, this materialism, is a mirror image to the idea that we are nothing but souls in shells, ghosts in machines, intellects inhabiting meat. Both attitudes show disrespect to the physical world. And both are wrong.

Clothes don’t make the man, but…

Among the many articles currently published about Veterans Day was one about a rather winsome homeless vet, and a time-lapse video of his makeover. See the three-minute video here:

After the makeover, he looks great! But he’s the same guy with the same hopes and dreams and abilities and experiences; he just looks different.

Does his appearance matter in any profound way?

I have written about the topic of grooming and the material world before, particularly in relation to my reaction to someone who took me to be a laundress and my reconsideration of my harsh response.

Indeed I did tell the historical anecdote of a man who, claiming to be humble, was told by a monk that he should shave off half his mustache, go about his daily business, and see if he were really humble.

The spiritual truth of that excellent story is that it is much harder to be humble than we often imagine, that we might be less humble than we might think we are, and that we should not think we are better than we are just because of our grooming. All true.

But which applicant would you hire for a job, the man who looked homeless at the start of the video, or the nicely groomed man in the suit and tie at the end of the video?

The video implies that the makeover actually turned around the man’s life, so that he started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and so on. And anecdotally, makeovers can change people by showing them the possibilities of what they could be. Thus, it seems that grooming really can be a catalyst of positive life change. And this only makes sense, because we are physical beings as well as mind and spirit. What affects one aspect of us affects the other aspects.

We would like to imagine that the material world doesn’t matter. We scoff (justifiably) at the ostentatious rich with their designer clothing and fancy cars, because as materialists, they imagine that their externals make them better than lesser mortals. We are horrified (justifiably) at people who disrespect waiters and other service personnel due to a belief that a lesser job makes a person of lesser value. We would like to believe that appearances don’t matter — but if that were the case, there would be no mirrors in bathrooms, or anywhere else.

Most people we encounter are actually exquisitely sensitive to their and our place in the social hierarchy. Find someone who denies that, and usually they are also in denial about having reverse prejudice, and they have something unkind to say about people who sincerely enjoy wearing neckties or high heels.

Most of us like to see people who are at least neatly groomed and dressed, and we feel more at ease around them. Some people are also ill at ease around obese people because they think of body size as a part of grooming. (“You should be an ascetic shopper about what you eat,” said a friend of mine bluntly a few days ago.) Brutally unfair as it is, many people are uncomfortable around people with dramatic physical traits such as mobility impairments. And we may not be impressed by the size of people’s homes, but we may be discomfited by the way they keep their abodes, particularly if they are hoarders.

I know from personal experience that shopping modestly on a very limited budget, it is surprisingly expensive and effortful to be neatly groomed and dressed. And on the other end, when one is drowning in stuff, it is also mentally and emotionally exhausting to deal with the physical objects one hoards. Like it or not, the material world matters, both our bodies and our possessions. It can give us great joy and it can be incredibly burdensome. And it also affects how we interact with others.

We are not ghosts in machines, we are not spirits inhabiting seashells. It is deluded to think that in our essence we are non-physical beings. We own our unique bodies; we interact with the material world in our own unique ways; we mate with people not just spiritually and psychologically compatible but whose appearance and grooming we like; our emotions are called “feelings” because we feel them in our bodies. It is not a coincidence that “junk” refers both to objects that we own and also to genitals. Our bodies, and the material objects we keep around us, are part of who we are.

Just as we should not be “respecters of persons” who denigrate the poor and honor the rich, so too we should not pretend that our bodies are mere shells or machines inhabited by the real us. We are not only mind and spirit; we are body, as well. And so, what we do with our bodies and our physical possessions is of real importance. Matter matters.

Forsaking all others: To choose a charity

I have pretty well decided on this. I still struggle, however, and you may too, so I am writing about it. That is, I concentrate my charitable donations on only two organizations, with the exception of small donations now and then as a favor to friends, and turn down all others.

To say this in the face of the recent terrible storm is not easy. I strongly believe that if you do not already have an existing plan for donating to selected charities, you should give to the relief efforts. But if you have an existing plan that takes up virtually all the money you have allotted to charity, you need to think carefully, because whatever you give to one group comes out of another group’s pockets.

I suggest that if you believe that human need in times of disaster is so compelling that it is incomprehensible or immoral not to give to relief efforts, then a relief agency should be your main charity of choice all year, every year, to the exclusion of other causes, because disaster happens constantly and everywhere. When one person is made homeless because of an apartment fire, he or she is no less homeless than one person made homeless among thousands due to a storm. I do not believe it is right to give only to famous disasters.

In relation to this topic, I have a party question, or, rather, a set of questions, that causes people in the vicinity to turn and look. These have the dual traits of being a just a bit invasive yet allowing people to boast, which is ideal for party talk. You should try this. People may stammer a bit at the start, but their ultimate responses are fascinating.

Namely, what is the thought process that went into choosing your favorite charity over others? There are so many deserving causes out there – why did you choose your favorite cause? And why did you choose that particular organization over others that have the same goals? Even if you give to many charities, there is probably one that got more money than the others. For what reason or reasons?

After all, how can you say that clean drinking water should get more money than preventing child abuse? Or how can you say that a ballet school should get more money than a university? Should relief efforts for an earthquake take precedence over cancer research? How can you deny all the worthy causes out there? How can you judge between them?

There is a huge range of responses, and we all should contemplate why we want to spend our money on the organizations we do. For one of my friends, it is tax simplicity with no particular emotion. His employer has an arrangement with one particular disaster relief charity, and withholds pretax money from his pay and gives it to the organization. For another friend, the specific unique nature of one charity moved her so much that she wanted to give all her donations to it alone; there are no other organizations like it. Another friend has an emotional stake in a particular cause, but she chose one organization in particular because of its special methods, which she believes are the most effective means of getting things done for the cause. And one friend chose a very local charity so that she can make unannounced visits to see what they are doing.

For me, efficiency in use of money is key. I chose my #1 charity because there is only one category, one cause, where I have deep enough knowledge of the topic to decide confidently which particular organization is most efficiently run. Oddly, it is not the field I work in, of which I know only my little corner; instead it is the one field, rather obscure, where I can look at an IRS Form 990 (the tax return for nonprofits) and understand what I see well enough to compare organizations.

I chose my #2 charity, a very tiny one, because I have observed them in person and know a couple of specific items they need. I can have these items direct-mailed more cheaply in bulk than if the group purchases small quantities from local stores, and I know that they will use up these things completely. The efficiency of my gift is total.

If you are only giving to a charity or charities with small gifts here and there, you are not doing yourself any favors, and you are not doing the organizations a favor. Asceticism, i.e. discipline, is needed here. Give a lot, and give with focus.

Research shows that when people give a significant percentage of their income, they are happier. So be generous.

Furthermore, if you are giving to more than a few causes, then you are wasting money, because it costs charities a surprising amount of money per person per year to maintain their lists and make appeals. The more you focus your gifts, the fewer the organizations you give to, the more money goes to your cause.

Charity Navigator says,
“By concentrating your giving among a few outstanding charities, your donations will do more good than if you contributed small gifts to a wide array of charities.”

However, now that I’ve picked a couple of causes to commit to, I find it’s still hard to resist appeals from other organizations. There are constant disasters riveting the world’s attention. There is one charity that sends such wonderful pictures causing me so much delight that I once spent a couple of hours going over their elaborate mailer before deciding not to donate. Other causes I feel great sympathy for, even passion, but I am not able to evaluate them as well as I can my chosen causes. It is difficult to turn them all down, but it is the only way not to dissipate my efforts and waste the money.

But many people have no organizations at all that they are able to evaluate, or they lack a sense of the causes that are out there, so they do not even have any organizations to evaluate. So I am going to present some links I have found helpful.

Do they still say “HTH” on forums? “HTH.” Hope this helps.

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