Betrayed By Our Consumption
I’ve been thinking about the current economic crisis a lot recently. For the most part of my life I have not followed, or cared too much about business or economic news. For all I knew is that I lived in America and that we were prosperous as a nation and a people (monetarily speaking), and most of us younger generations have not really had to weather any major storms from a national standpoint.
We were never asked to enlist (though many of you did and served honorably…thank you!), or sacrifice our lifestyles for the betterment of the whole nation and other people. We talk a lot about and admire the Greatest Generation for their sacrifices, especially considering that their sacrifices were going to be of the greatest benefit to those who came after them. They were not self-centered, only living in the present, concerned only about their needs.
But we are a very different generation. We have grown up in unheralded prosperity (and yes…if you have a home, have clean drinking water, food to eat…you are prosperous compared to most of the world) and have not had to sacrifice much. This is not to say that no one has made sacrifices, but for the most part we have been able to freely live the lifestyle we want…uninterrupted.
But times are changing and I’m not quite sure what that means for us as a nation and as a people.
Who is to blame? We are – i.e. you and me. We borrow too much! 43% of us spend more money each year than we make! First, we all spent too much money on houses, cars and consumer goods that we can’t afford. In the 1970s the average size home was 1,400 square feet, today the average is over 2,300 square feet. Are we that much bigger? Today we MUST have a phone, DSL connection, cell phone (maybe two), TIVO, cable TV and so on. All those services come with a monthly recurring cost – a cost we can’t really afford. We are a mess. Of course, lots of us are trying to blame Congress or Wall Street. Sure blame away, but at the end of the day the buck stops with you and me.
Alexander is right. We want to blame everyone else around us, especially big entities like government and corporations, but to actually turn the mirror inward and look at ourselves I’m afraid is too painful. We are the ones that in pursuit of the “American Dream” have continued to consume and consume until it finally has turned in upon us. I am as guilty as the government and corporations. I have taken lots of loans out for things I consider good (i.e. graduate school education and a house), but in hindsight, even buying a house in LA in 2005 doesn’t seem like much of a good decision now. It’s not that owning a house is bad at all, it was the inner feeling that I need to own a home to be complete, or to walk in step with what everyone else is doing.
I was telling my wife the other night that there is this dangerous point of no return in consuming. We find something we like and we convince ourselves that we need, whether we can afford it or not. Once that attachment becomes complete psychologically/emotionally, then there is almost no turning back. I justify to myself that though I don’t have the money for the new i-Phone I sure need one. It will somehow complete me. Don’t have one yet, and starting to think it’s not a wise decision for our finances. Whether it be school debt, mortgages, clothes, eating out, travel, electronic gear, whatever….for the most part we have all over extended ourselves more than we really needed to…but it just seemed like the right thing to do and felt so good at the time. Now it doesn’t seem right, nor feel good.
A Time for New Opportunity, New Thinking
I think now is a time of re-evaluation for us regarding what truly is important, and what are our needs vs. wants and desires. One of the reasons my wife and I moved our family to Dallas was to cut down the cost of living in Los Angeles, to be closer to family and to cut back on some of our work. We are in a tough transition place right now especially with the economy, and we are having to look deeper inside to see what is necessity and what is not. Cable? Internet? Cell phone plans? Eating out? Magazine subscriptions? Etc. It’s time to clean house and do an assessment of our lives and what should go and what should stay.
Meanwhile, I did in fact spend my NY Web Expo talk on the idea that “I sense a storm coming” (Rilke quote), and the idea that companies and individuals need robust strategies (ones that can work even in uncertain times), with one robust strategy being to “work on stuff that matters.”
That Rilke quote, from the poem The Man Watching, translated by Robert Bly, has this great line about letting ourselves be washed over by events greater than ourselves:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming…
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
I’ve been feeling a lot like that. Watchful. Listening. Learning. Not rushing about fighting the small things of the moment but letting the storm wash in. It will change us. That can be good. And as the storm washes through, it will become clear what we have to do.
I’ve been quoting that poem in my talks since Why I Love Hackers at ETech in March. It ends with a ringing invocation to work on challenging problems, problems that stretch us, as the wrestlers of the Old Testament were challenged by wrestling with the angel. That seems to me to be the heart of what we need to do now.
But I also want to point out that rough times are often the best times for creativity, opportunity and change.
We don’t know yet how problems in the overall economy will affect our business. But what we can do now are the things we ought to be doing anyway:
* Work on stuff that matters: Assuming that the world does go to hell in a handbasket, what would we still want to be working on? What will people need to know? (Chances are good that they need to know these things in a world where we all continue to muddle along as well.)
* Exert visionary leadership in our markets. In tough times, people look for inspiration and vision. The big ideas we care about will still matter, perhaps even more when people are looking for a way forward. (Remember how Web 2.0 gave hope and a story line to an industry struggling its way out of the dotcom bust.)
* Be prudent in what we spend money on. Get rid of the “nice to do” things, and focus on the “must do” things to accelerate them.
These are all things we should be doing every day anyway. Sometimes, though, a crisis can provide an unexpected gift, a reminder that nobody promised us tomorrow, so we need to make what we do today count.
Stop Storing Up Treasures on Earth
Dave Ramsey who I have really grown to admire (listen to his show daily when I can and bought his book) has a good post on What Does the Bible Say About Money? Ultimately, the Bible has a lot to say…mentioned over 800 times. And Jesus had a lot to say to his disciples about it in the gospels.
A couple of passages stick out in my head right now as I think about the situation that we are in, and they bring comfort to me, and hopefully you. Knowing that they bring comfort just makes me realize how twisted and backwards my understanding and reliance upon money has become.
Matthew 6 is a great passage, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that money and worry are coupled together in the text. Jesus says:
Treasures in Heaven
19″Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22″The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24″No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
Do Not Worry
25″Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[b]?
28″And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
This passage is a reminder to me that I’m not to store up treasure here on earth. That there is way, way, way more to life than a nice, big house, a nice car, cool clothes, eating at trendy restaurants, keeping up with the neighbors down the street. When we store things up on earth it can only create dependence upon those things, as well as worry when those things don’t deliver the goods that the consumption of them promised to us.
What Can We Do
I’m not an economist, but here are some things I was thinking about in my own personal life as well as the life of the Church.
- Re-Evaluate your budget, and then do it again. What can go and what needs to stay? Do you need your current cell phone plan? Do you need the high tech internet plan? Do you need 2 DVR’s?
- Change your lifestyle. Should we be eating more at home, and less out? Can I start packing my lunch for work instead of eating out? Maybe our vacation this year should not take place, or should at least be changed to be cheaper. Do I need that new car or new lease? Maybe we don’t need to buy a house right now…renting is okay.
- Be Okay With Ourselves/Image. How much do we spend a month on maintaining an image or projecting some image that we want others to see? Maybe I can get a cheaper haircut and coloring (I don’t color…but you might)? Maybe all those clothes in my closet are actually okay…I don’t need more to impress people? Am I driving a car only to impress…maybe there is one more practical and more affordable?
- What Can A Church Do. Maybe staff members don’t go out to coffee or lunch anymore? Or maybe a church doesn’t really need all this new high tech gear just to keep up? Re-think the staff retreats and workshops to cut cost? Reduce the amount of travel and conferences that staff members and pastors attend? Get that building debt paid off and don’t feel the need to get into debt again for another building?
And on and on….you get the idea.
Do you have any thoughts, comments or suggestions? What are you doing, or what are you re-evaluating to help save money? What can churches do in this area?