Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

Feeding the Spirit. . . Slowly

Most days I’m bullish, in a two-thirds kinda way, on our future. But about a third of accelerating modernization worries me. For example, young people gravitate almost exclusively to high speed, visual media that leaves the future of non-visual slow mo media like National Public Radio extremely vulnerable.

This was painfully apparent the other day while I was listening to NPR while driving through downtown Bend, Oregon. I learned that the “Talk of the Nation” call in program was going off the air after 21 years. Something about a $7m debt. Next, as I drove back to Sunriver, I listened to a riveting, seemingly unbelievable (it was April 1st) story about a Portland State University student who got caught in a gruesome, downward sex trafficking spiral.

And I thought it was an exotic, mostly Southeast Asian story. I needed educating and was schooled by a memorable story that stuck with me the way powerful journalism does. Journalism that educates, pricks your conscience, and tugs at your emotions.

Youtube videos are often funny diversions from day-to-day life, but few rise to the level of powerful journalism.

I had to listen to the same station for twenty minutes and use my imagination to envision the young women’s harrowing story. Devalued attributes in today’s social media landscape.

I’m a frugal fool meaning my money saving strategies are sometimes irrational. So I identify closely with my friend who likes the Washington Post. I sent him a link to a recent article that described the Post’s new pay wall. He quickly fired back, “It will never work, I’ll just read the minimum number of articles and then turn to other news sites.”

But when it comes to the potential of our journalism to challenge our intellect, hold our public officials accountable, and sometimes even nourish our spirit, we get what we pay for.

I can’t help but wonder, no make that worry, about what happens to 21st Century media when young people are unwilling or unable to paint pictures for twenty minutes and their parents refuse to contribute to the salaries of the skilled men and women who excel at telling our stories.

Two Roads Diverge 2

Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.

The left attributes stagnant wages, high unemployment, and heightened economic scarcity to conservative Republican ideology, unregulated Wall Street bankers, and all-powerful corporations. The U.S., the left contends, is not a meritocracy. Within our laissez-faire free-market capitalist economy the wealthy have many more opportunities to advance than the poor; consequently, the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Increasing the wealthy’s taxes will reduce inequality, help more people find jobs and pay for health insurance, and give the majority of people with ordinary means a fighting chance.

The right, because they insist our economic problems can be fixed by a kind of American exceptionalism positive thinking, is failing to provide any kind of realistic roadmap that might help us negotiate the fork and create genuine, lasting forward momentum.

The left, because they insist it’s impossible for individuals and families to create any kind of economic security because the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is so wide, is also failing to provide a hopeful, credible, compelling roadmap.

With an eye towards November 2012, the President tends to split the difference and articulates an American exceptionalism-lite that he couples with an unfailing belief that a renaissance in math and science education will help us reclaim our role as the world’s undisputed economic hegemon.

Neither political party’s platform offers any assurance that nearly enough decent paying jobs will be created, we’ll transition to alternative energy sources, health insurance and Medicaid will be affordable, and anyone but the already well-to-do will enjoy prosperity.

Despite the understandable fear and foreboding, I’m finding more inspiration from ordinary people living humble, simple, selfless lives, than from any political figure, party, or platform. People unmoved by materialism. People attuned to the limits of time. People who identify more as writers, artists, peacemakers, ecologists, and global citizens, than consumers. People relatively unperturbed by the fork because they’re on simpler pathways.

The wrap against minimalism or voluntary simplicity is that it’s boring. Sometimes minimalists deserve criticism for a one-size fits all mentality, but not for being boring. What’s boring is subjective. For me, inexpensive things like writing, preparing and enjoying a healthy meal with a few family members or friends, reading a good book, seeing an excellent film, working out, and watching basketball with the labradude are sufficiently exciting. I’m cool with other people thinking those things are uninteresting.

The natural reaction to our tough economic times and the fork in the woods is to be disappointed with having to live with less. On the other hand, it could be a catalyst for rethinking our taken for granted consumerist-materialist lifestyles.

Some will conclude, “An out-of-touch sentence that only a person who doesn’t have to live month-to-month or worry about basic needs could write.” I get that. I’m beyond fortunate. I’m not sharing my evolving thinking to convince anyone to give up anything, I just hope my musings about how much is enough and what’s most important resonates with some readers.

There’s a big difference between “voluntary simplicity” and “forced frugality”. A forced frugality mentality, “damn we can’t afford anything anymore,” breeds ever-increasing resignation and frustration. In contrast, a voluntary simplicity orientation that prioritizes health, interpersonal relationships, and service is liberating because not as much money is required, meaning not as many hours or years of work may be needed.

This reorientation is similar to my learning to eat more healthily. Initially, I didn’t particularly care for low sugar, non-fat, veggie and fruit based meals, but ten years later I prefer them. I don’t have to force myself to eat healthily, I prefer it. I don’t have to force myself to live relatively simply (by 2011 North American standards), I prefer it.

Wherever this non-work, simplicity journey takes me, I doubt I’ll ever reach a state of buddhist nirvana. I like to travel, I like cars, carbon fiber bicycles, nice hotels, and massage “therapy” too much. And not too proud to admit, I even like Million Dollar Listing on Bravo. Ample room for growth.

Next—The conclusion—Our children and the fork.

E Pluribus Unum?

I’m keenly interested in how people of different political, cultural, and religious points of view relate one to another.

I first became interested in how people deal with those whose politics are radically different than their own as a high school social studies teacher leading discussions about contemporary issues. I quickly learned to play the “devil’s advocate” since some of my students were right or left-wing ideologues whose positions were highly predictable.

Also, I’ve been fortunate to have two friends whose worldviews are very different than my own. In contrast to most people who tend to keep the peace by avoiding talking about subjects related to politics, religion, race, and sexual orientation, we tackle them head-on.

In the last few years the church my family attends have added two new pastors for two that left. They’ve taken a moderate, fairly apolitical church considerably to the left in a few ways including a gay and lesbian friendly “welcoming statement” and by embracing evolution.

Here’s an excerpt from the “Clergy Letter Project” that was read Sunday. “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory’ among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. . . We ask school board members to preserve the integrity of science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.”

I like the pastors and  strongly support the stands they’re taking, but I’m intrigued by how little effort they seem to be making to retain conservative members. Attendance is down a bit, so I assume some have left. My guess is there will be liberal replacements in the months ahead. In a year’s time I expect us to have the same size church, but we’ll be much more homogeneous.

Consequently, the church may lose some of it’s distinctiveness and potential to model the Kingdom of God on earth. Given the choice, people already tend to socialize with, live next to, work with, and recreate with like-minded people. If truly committed to following Christ’s example, it seems as if the church would be a counter-cultural institution, one where people’s faith trumps political differences.

And not one where political differences are swept under the rug, but where people commit to conversation and learn how to agree to disagree when necessary about things like gay rights, the causes of global warming, and the death penalty, all in the interest of modeling “another way”.

Am I too idealistic to think this is possible? The cynic in me can’t help but notice our church, like many, has two services, one formal with hymns and a traditional liturgy, and a hymn-free, informal “contemporary” one. The nucleus divides again.

In the end, will the small corner of the world that is Olympia, Washington end up more religiously, socially, culturally, and politically fragmented?