The introductory bio on Ms. McDonald described her as a former nurse who had gone on to found the New Road Map Foundation, which focuses on educating and enabling people to "shift to low-consumption, high-fulfillment lifestyles." In that mission, they rely primarily on Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's book Your Money or Your Life. I had never heard of that book until reading Ms. McDonald's essay, but afterwards I couldn't wait to read it and it eventually had a real impact on my thinking. But in the meantime, Ms. McDonald's essay was a great introduction to the concepts in that book and really wetted my appetite.
A number of points in Ms. McDonald's essay really caught my attention.
First, she observed, "Though history shows that there was a constant tension between material acquisition and spiritual transcendence, most households until the twentieth century were not consumers but producers and manufacturers. People grew their own food, built their own homes, barns and furniture, poured their own candles and sewed their own clothes." This passage really opened my eyes. At the time, I was so in the trenches in my career, I had become rather myopic. It may sound silly but it never occurred to me that the lifestyle I was living (and that most folks in my social circles were living) was a fairly modern invention. On some level, I guess I had assumed that through the centuries, people had always been consumers. It was just that we had consumed less and what we had consumed was different in the olden days. Even though I had read books like Little House on the Prairie as a kid, I guess I had lost sight that that lifestyle was not unique to families whose patriarch yanked them out of civilization to homestead on the frontier. And it began to dawn on me that if the consumption lifestyle has not always been, maybe it will not always be. Just maybe there might be another way to live our precious time on this planet--even if we live in large metropolitan areas and have jobs.
Second, Ms. McDonald described that prior to the Great Depression, "social innovators were planning self-sufficient communities that would give people a sense of belonging and integrate urban and rural towns." She cites David Shi's book The Simple Life in this description. However, she explains that with the advent of the economic collapse of the Great Depression, these plans fell apart. Then once the economy recovered, "[l]eading economists felt that perpetual economic growth was possible." From there, a "theology of consumption began to invade our culture--and our churches. Slowly, almost imperceptively, we wandered away from the foundational teachings of Jesus--sharing our wealth, identifying with the marginalized, living a life of grateful stewardship--and began to identify our worth with how much money we made or how many possessions we owned."
Wow! I really want to read Mr. Shi's book. Those pre-Depression communities of self-sufficiency sounded exciting. I've never heard of those. With our hussle bussle modern lives, most of us have really lost a sense of community. We don't even know our neighbors in more than a superficial way most of the time.
But I had definitely heard of and been impacted by the belief in "perpetual economic growth" and "theology of consumption." At the time, my husband and I worked for publicly traded companies fairly obsessed with their stock price. Everyone was always wanting to show more revenues, more expansion, more everything. Staying the same was not acceptable. Shrinking was catastrophe.
And that thinking about the corporate bottom line infects our thinking in so many other ways. Schools need to increase their number of graduates and the passage by their students of key tests. Nonprofits need to show they are helping more people and increasing grants. We are often judged professionally not by how well we do but by how much improvement we can prove. But in the back of my mind, when I had a moment to breath, I would sometimes wonder whether it was always possible to grow in tangible ways. At some point, isn't growth more difficult to achieve? Is such growth even valuable if you've gotten so big and it takes so much effort to grow a little more?
And the theology of consumption is not just a secular idea. When I was young, I didn't like going to church. There were a lot of reasons, but one was that church seemed to often be a chance for people to show off their fancy clothes. I never had a lot of clothes, fancy or otherwise. This was a distraction for me, and I never understood how showing off one's clothes squared with Jesus's teaching. I couldn't reconcile the two, and sadly it drove me away from church for many years.
It continues today to some extent. My husband and I have felt judged even by clergy for not dressing more elegantly. We don't wear ripped jeans and flip flops, but we also don't wear suits. One Christmas, a deacon approached our family and to our horror asked if one (but not both) of our children would like to help the pastor at one point in the service because the child she was inviting "was dressed." What she meant was that our invited child had taken it upon herself to wear her fanciest dress, while our other child was wearing a more modest outfit of slacks and a solid cotton shirt. Apparently, the uninvited child wasn't fancy enough to be seen at the front of the church. We were so disappointed in this mentality!
And it is not just clothes. We are a culture that still judges each other based on other possessions--what kind of car, which electronics, what kind of house, what kind of furniture. But Ms. McDonald notes how contrary that is to Jesus's teachings. How convicting!
Later, she had a line that caught my attention. She notes that "our affluence and consumption [have not] given us more fulfilling, happier and just ways of living" and instead "[t]oday, people admit to feeling stressed and tired with little time to care for and nuture relationships, family, friends or the environment." She notes that researchers have indicated this trend increased from the 1970s to now. It left us "[s]atiated at the physical level, yet starved at the spiritual level." These words really hit home. Why was I working so hard? It was true that I had more financial cushion than I'd ever had in my life. But money was not the big motivator to me. My husband and I didn't particularly like buying things. We did enjoy traveling. And our corporate jobs were giving us the money to go places. But they also gave us so few vacation days that we frankly had little time to go anywhere.
Quoting Marcus Borg in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, she states: "Our culture's secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the spirit. . . It looks to the material world for satisfaction and meaning. Its dominant values are what I call the three A's--Achievement, Affluence and Appearance." Mr. Borg's book is a great one, but even if you aren't a person of faith, it is easy to see the emptiness and futility of a life built on those three A's. Those values are really pointless. They aren't sustainable or lasting.
The part of the essay that particularly got my attention was when Ms. McDonald described how her "[w]ork was the center of her life" until a particular day that changed her life. She received a devastating medical report and was advised she would probably die within a year. Because of her health condition, she was rapidly replaced at work because her manager did not think she would still be able to keep up with such a demanding job. She wrote, "I had lost the job that gave me my identity, my purpose in life and my sense of self-worth, and I had been told that I was going to die." To add insult to injury, she then found out her home had been burglarized and most of her worldly possessions were gone. Out of the blue, in rapid succession, everything was taken away--her future, her career and her things.
She described that God was the only place to turn, but she painfully realized that she had not been living the life she had professed: "God only existed for me at times of crisis or convenience." She asked herself whom she wanted to be when she died and the answer came to her: "I wanted to be a person who lived her values, understood what service was about and could love herself enough to accept God's love and love her neighbor." She went on to explain that to make that happen, "[m]y self-centered and unhealthy relationship with money was a logical place to start learning how to live my values." This led her to accept a friend's invitation to attend a seminar by Joe Dominguez.
She summarized that she had two main takeaways from the seminar. The first was "identifying how much is enough" and the second was "understanding the true definition of money." Ms. McDonald went on to elaborate that per Joe Dominguez "enough" is "having our survival needs met (food, clothing, shelter), having possessions that bring joy and comfort and even having those few special luxuries that add to the quality of our life." She explains that her definition of money had previously been "power, prestige, status and a way to identify where I stood in relation to other people of my profession," but Mr. Dominguez defined it in a completely different way: "Money is something for which you trade your life energy--your time." To make this definition more comprehensible, Ms. McDonald elaborated:
Every purchase could be seen in terms of the number of hours I would need to work to pay for it. The real cost of a $100 blouse, therefore, would be the 20 hours on the job needed to make the money to buy it. Would I receive satisfaction from the blouse equal to 20 hours of my life? I began to apply that question to all my purchases.
That one paragraph was a revelation (and a revolution!) to me. I did some computations to figure out my hourly "wage" though I was a salaried employee. I then used that number to think about how many hours of my life I had given up for various purchases I had made. That gave me a whole new way to look at how I was spending my life and whether various purchases were a good use of my life energy. We only have a finite amount of time in this life. None of us knows how much. We cannot squander our lives or put off living until retirement.
Ms. McDonald's experience rang true to me on so many levels. I too was working crazy hours. And around the time I read her essay, I had had some health scares of my own. Things had turned out well, but there were some nervous times after initial doctors' reports that made me wonder if I was not long for this world. That kind of experience is scary and stressful, but it is also valuable in helping you put things in perspective!
I loved how Ms. McDonald ended her essay:
Gradually my actions became more aligned with my values. I discovered the truth of graceful simplicity: having a few pairs of shoes, not 70; a few blouses, not a hundred; books that are read instead of lining the shelves. Through this process I reclaimed the most precious gift God gave me--the hours of my life--and I could begin to discover how God wanted those hours used. In defining how much was enough for me I found time for serving, reading, watching sunsets, singing, going for a walk with friends, enjoying a concert and listing in silent prayer. In short, a life of immeasurable wealth.
I still consume. We all consume. The critical step is to move from being conspicuous consumers to being conscious consumers.
Discovering what was enough for me allowed me to make that shift. Our task now is to return to a life based on feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, raising healthy loving children, and stewarding and preserving creation. Perhaps then each act of consumption will become a hymn of thanksgiving.
Aren't those beautiful words? I hope they will be a joy and a blessing to you.