Friday, May 18, 2007

The Things that Last

Earlier this week, I wrote about an aspect of crunchy conservatism I tend to admire: the concern with safe, healthy food, and the opposition to potentially dangerous factory farming practices.

Today, though, I'm going to focus on an aspect of crunchy conservatism that's beginning to trouble me.

It is the emphasis on owning "good" things, on buying homes and furnishings and even shoes of "good" quality; an emphasis on not purchasing any "junk," but only buying the Things that Last.

This attitude has begun to crop up in many places, including a few Catholic Mommy Blogs I visit. I was going to link to them, but I've decided not to. The point of this post isn't to be critical of any one person specifically, but only of an attitude that's beginning to seep into the zeitgeist, so to speak.

There was a discussion, for instance, on a blog I won't name, about buying furniture. Someone commented, rather mildly I thought, on the need to be sensitive to those moms out there for whom this type of furniture remains a distant dream; this comment was answered rather dismissively by the blog's owner, who said that some people did bring up the idea of used furniture, and anyway, it's not wrong to want to have a nice home and to prioritize and buy some nice things for it.

I could only imagine how that answer must have felt to the commenter. Where did we Catholics get the idea that the only reason some people don't have "nice things" is that they don't prioritize their spending properly? When did we decide that creating a nice home for our families automatically means purchasing things that are not only expensive, but that have some kind of prestige about them?

Once I took part in an online conversation that centered around the buying of bookcases. The 'crunchy' view was that it was not only important, but necessary, to have solid wood bookcases and to avoid the 'cheap' put-together cases. When it was objected that some people can barely afford the put-together ones, several people began to suggest, perfectly seriously, that it was more virtuous in that case to stack your books against your walls and save up a few dollars at a time for solid wood bookcases than it would be to buy the cheap ones you could afford.

I realize that many people are frustrated with our disposable world, with our crassly consumerist, materialistic lifestyles. But I don't think that people whose focus and emphasis is on the quality and permanence of the things they buy are aware that they are caught in a different, but no less materialist, trap. Christians are supposed to be detached from the things of this world; it is hard to see detachment among people who are focused on having the right kinds of furniture, the right kinds of toys for their children, the right sort of homes and bookcases and shoes and dishes and purses and watches and on and on.

Take toys, for instance. Is the hundred-dollar handcrafted rag doll really better than the twenty dollar kind? Oh, sure, in one sense it's nice to get away from mass produced items. But I would argue that the hundred-dollar doll is only good if the child is really allowed to play with it. Can she drag it around by the feet? Can she chew on its hands, when she's teething? Can she cuddle up with it at night, take it outside for tea parties and tree-climbing adventures, let it ride beside her in the car on the way to grandma's house? Can she share it with her friends?

Or does the doll 'live' on top of the highest shelf in the room, and get taken down only occasionally? Are there strict rules about how the doll may and may not be played with? Is it forbidden to take the doll outdoors, and does the doll get hidden away when grubby-fingered little friends come to call? Is the doll, in other words, an idol?

What about that nice leather purse from the good brand-name company? Sure, it's expensive, you rationalize, but just think--it could be the last purse you ever buy! You can get rid of the cheap ones that wear out too soon! You'll really be saving money, in the long run, and just think of the quality!

Except you buy a cheap purse when you go on vacation, because you don't want the 'good' one to attract thieves. And you buy another cheap purse for the pool, because the one you bought to go on vacation isn't big enough for the bottle of sunscreen--and you're not about to carry sunscreen in your 'good' purse. But still, you're thrilled every time someone comments on your nice purse, at church or at the mom's group or at a restaurant--until the purse starts to look worn, and broken in, and no one comments anymore. You keep telling yourself, it's your 'good' purse, and you'll never buy another one--until your carsick daughter unwittingly ends up being sick on the Thing that Lasts. And you're really, really angry with her, because in a way you've been worshiping that purse, and there's no money for another one.

These are just a couple of examples, but there are plenty of things that can end up being the focus of our lives, eclipsing the One Who should always be our focus. Creating a clean, comfortable home is part of the task of a mother, but 'clean and comfortable' doesn't have to mean 'solid wood, handcrafted, and expensive.' Creating those expectations in our minds can lead to dissatisfaction with the things we do have; it can lead us to replace things that are perfectly good and useful, because they're only plastic or press board, and thus don't satisfy some aesthetic sense we want to project in our lives; it can cause us to reject mass produced materialistic values, but then replace them with a 'crunchy' value that is, sadly, no less materialistic in the long run.

Because, in the long run, there are only three Things that Last; they are, according to St. Paul, faith, and hope, and love. Whether we're buried in a simple pine box or laid to rest in a gorgeous hand-carved mahogany coffin will make little difference to our ultimate destination. And how nice or crunchy or aesthetically pleasing the things we owned on earth were will only matter to the people who line up to shop at our estate sale; God will be asking us what we did with the treasure He gave us, and the most beautiful silver receptacle we could possibly buy to put it in won't satisfy Him, because He expects us to have spent it on our brothers.

1 comment:

Theresa said...

Once again, I find myself in total agreement.
Another issue with that 100 dollar doll would be that, even if you can afford to spend 100 dollars on a doll, you could buy a 10 dollar doll and donate the other 90 to a worthy cause where it will do some real good. Same holds for huge houses and expensive cars.Instead of the "quality" Beamer, buy a Ford for half the price and send a needy kid to college!
I understand the sentiment behind wanting to buy good quality, because using fewer resources is always a good thing. But I would venture to guess that many of those espousing this philosphy consume double what others with lower income, buying presswood shelves, consume. Yet it's easy for those who can afford things to tell others they should just do without. Look at the big picture, folks.