03-Lent: Clear the Clutter
Most of us are creatures so comforted by habit, it can take something on
the order of religion to invoke new, more conscious behaviors – however
glad we may be afterward that we went to the trouble.
- Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly
interested in liberation.
- E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful
Dear fellow wanderers,
Welcome to the second week of Lent. Here in Winnipeg, the thermometer’s begun to peak above freezing, turning long-frozen snowbanks into giant puddles. These days have served as a gentle – albeit messy, if one’s walking or biking – reminder that our landscape is undergoing a gradual transformation into a warmer, greener season. It’s surely a fitting metaphor for integrating Lenten rituals into our daily routines.
Much ink has been spent on providing negative reasons for why we need to swiftly gut our consumerist kick. Our Lent message from last week, for example, pointed out the looming ecological and economic issues ahead. The likes of Adbusters, Canadian Dimension and the Dark Mountain Project haven’t let us forget the terrifying state of the world, either. But challenging consumerism isn’t just about preventing the world’s collapse.
A simple, less-consumerist life is also about re-discovering our humanity (a cliché, but hopefully it’s a worthwhile one). A few centuries of planned obsolescence combined with cultural conditioning and mandated efficiency have deadened the human spirit. We’ve been shielded from the extraordinary sensory experience found in one’s local community and biosphere. Religious practice is seldom related to soil.
So consider this a plea for a spiritual coup, to reclaim a right to live a meaningful existence. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus – two dudes from the U.S. who started a blog appropriately titled The Minimalists – suggest that “by clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” We tend to agree.
E.F. Schumacher probably would have, too. In his 1973 Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, the British writer (and former National Coal Board advisor) argued for a worldview that acknowledges the finite resources of the earth and degrading nature of capitalist production. He drew upon both the Buddhist principles of work and the Christian Gospels’ Sermon on the Mount for inspiration.
After positing that “the present consumer society is like a drug addict,” Schumacher suggests “. . . it takes a good deal of courage to say ‘no’ to the fashions and fascinations of the age and to question the presuppositions of a civilisation which appears destined to conquer the whole world; the requisite strength can be derived only from deep convictions.”
It’s our opinion that Lent might serve as an ideal time to foster such convictions: to communally enter rehab (to carry on with Schumacher’s metaphor) and prepare ourselves for the acknowledgment of history’s greatest example of sacrifice. But the point of this isn’t just to refuse the accumulation of wealth as defined by CEOs and hedge fund managers. Rather, it’s to discover a whole new conception of fulfillment as demonstrated by Jesus.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the man himself is recorded as saying: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (6:19-20)
We’re going to avoid any sort of complex exegesis on such a hotly debated quotation. However, we don’t think it’s too much of a leap to suggest that – as pop theologians Reza Aslan and Rob Bell do – the “heaven” Jesus referred to in his life was an extremely tangible and political reality, one anchored in restoring justice, redeeming slaves and fighting for the marginalized, all within the context of ancient Israel. He announced and embodied the Year of Jubilee.
Put another way, in relocating the source of our treasure from material possessions to human and non-human lives – to “live simply so others may simply live,” as someone wise once said – we might stumble upon the same rewarding path Jesus once wandered. Sure, it’ll take some time to adjust (learning to walk or ride in a car culture is tough enough), but simplifying our lives might just save our souls. Or something.
As with previous weeks, the response to messages from the Lent for Skeptics crew has been strong and diverse. Below are a few of the perspectives we’ve received.
Winona Senner kindly relayed some insights from a booklet of 40 Lenten meditations by Clinton Lee Scott (published by the Unitarian Universalist Association):
Lent should be a season not of gloom but of cheer, not sulphur and molasses but maple syrup and raised doughnuts, a time to celebrate the goodness, the beauty, and the utility in life. Lent is a time not for monastic introspection but for expansion of mind and heart, for vigorous exercise and deep breathing, a time for getting the whole self tuned up so it can function harmoniously with the forces that lift the tulips and make the grass grow. It is a time for becoming more alive, for making love with your mate and getting acquainted with your children.
Bob Brown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania wrote:
Some members of our church (Stahl Mennonite) have been taking on something called Rice and Beans month. You may have already written about it, but it is a practice of eating simpler meals as a means to be in solidarity with those who only get to eat rice and beans – and are so grateful when they get a meal like that. The great part of it (think Isaiah 58) is that the full story is that you donate the money that you save on your groceries to these places that feed these kids. See more at: eatriceandbeans.com
And finally, we received some more suggestions from Hannah Main-van der Kamp on how to experiment in the Lenten season:
• Eat one meal every day very slowly, chewily, without talk or texting
• Fill a box with items you no longer use. Recycle, donate or dump, but do not replace.
• If you do not have a garden, rent a square metre from a friend, neighbour or stranger. Plant a summer flowering perennial. (Don’t buy, any other gardener will happily donate a corm or tuber or pip)
• Let your prayers be brief and in a private place. Come away smiling.
Please keep us up to date on your adventures and learnings this season by writing us at lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org
Stay slow.– James, and your friends at Geez
Return to Lent index page
Editor of Lent for Skeptics: lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org
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So – yes absolutely for a reduce level of consumerism and consumption – but how does one rationalise that financial accumulation does indeed contribute to security and mobility (when needed). I guess where I struggle is that – for example – to offer my child an education in a competitive, increasingly educated and global society – I am going to have resources to provide this, otherwise, it will be obtained only through a burden of debt to them. This requires at times long hours at work, a decent wardrobe, a car (actually don’t need one right now, but if in the North America, I likely would). Not mention that there are career benefits to living in the right neighbourhood. I do not suggest that this is not possible with relatively modest means, but a progressive career and accumulation of wealth can make such things more certain and attainable. I do understand that there is a difference between wealth and consumerism, but they seem quite closely tied. So – wealth has its benefits – I don’t think that can be denied – so how does one find a balance?
David Elzinga Paris,France March 12th, 2014 11:24am
Thanks for the thoughts. It’s a tough point that you raise – it brings to mind the conflict that countries in Central and South America face in attempting to implement systems of governance that are ecologically and economically just while being stuck in a global debt system that forces them to dig up resources, undercut labourers and open borders to investments. I don’t have any real answers.
However, I guess I could suggest that here at Geez we’re attempting to explore what it means to lead a “good” life, both for ourselves and future generations. On a superficial, short-level level, it might seem smart to invest in the qualities that will presumably allow for a “good” life – the traits, as you mentioned, include things like post-secondary education, a diverse wardrobe and property.
But I’m not convinced that such investments will pay off in the long run (I hate to use such business-oriented terms, but I think it works in this case). The global economy as we have known it for the past 40 years – really, since 1971, when Nixon ditched the gold standard and the first Davos Summit was held – is in the process of crumbling. Jobs are becoming increasingly scarce, and when they are available, they’re usually less-than-full-time and without benefits.
That’s not to mention the incredible collapse of ecological systems that we’re witnessing. Catastrophic climate change, peak oil and food insecurity – to cite Vandana Shiva or Winona LaDuke, I’m never sure who was the originator – are just the symptoms of an entrenched disconnect between homo sapiens and the rest of the world. Here in Winnipeg, we just experienced the coldest winter in decades, courtesy of the effects of global warming disrupting the polar vortex system.
All of this is to say that I don’t think the trajectory that our species is currently on is going to last for much longer. Sure, we can do all the things that have been recommended to us for the past century, but is it wise? Perhaps, instead, we should be exploring what life will look after global economic and ecological collapse. It’s our guess that things will become a lot more local and linked to our biosphere. It’ll also require a new (but really, old) set of skills: small-scale farming, woodworking, repairing, etc. So why not get a head start?
I realize that I’m not really answering your question. But to conclude, I’d suggest that many of the things we think are crucial to getting by simply won’t be permanent. Plus, in the mean time, I personally think it’s a lot more rewarding to try to get by on less, to bike/walk more, to celebrate frugality and recycling, and to connect more with local community.
James Wilt Winnipeg, MB March 13th, 2014 4:22am