Keeping up with the Joneses: Battling simplicity envy

April 14, 2010


[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

The grass is always greener ...

I saw an advertisement on television the other day—I think it was for Wal-Mart—in which a young woman was raving about all of the stuff she could buy at such “low” prices. It was pretty standard, until the closing sound byte: “Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, people are trying to keep up with you.”

Honestly, I was shocked at the brazen admission of the advertisement’s ultimate purpose. There was no enticement, no disguise, no excuse—simply an open acknowledgement that what we all want (apparently) is to be the person of whom everyone else is jealous. We all want more than our neighbor has. I can only hope that such an open acknowledgement will serve as the end of denial and the beginning of the healing process for a nation glutted with stuff.

I often question whether my distaste for advertising and commercialism is really a quest for what’s right and true or if it’s just a natural result of my tastes in other areas. It’s easy for me to be disgusted with chain stores when I really enjoy shopping at thrift stores. It’s easy for me to elevate shopping locally to a virtue when I run a local business myself. It’s easy for me to desire simple living when I naturally enjoy log cabins, good books, and biking and there’s something strangely appealing to me about surviving without electricity or running water. Rejecting the ads doesn’t take any work for me—but being discerning does.

We can easily elevate simple living to the point that it becomes as obsessive and unhealthy as a lifestyle of uncritical acquisitiveness. That gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction can occur whether we’re striving for more or striving for less. The Jones family is still the Jones family, even when we’re envying their solar power, geothermal heating and composting toilet.

What we must realize is that living simply is not about the particulars—eating organic, owning a fuel-efficient vehicle, or living in a small house—but about cultivating a standard of living that is biblical. It’s about shedding the cluttered mass of messages that we need to acquire stuff to be fulfilled; to maintain ultimate control while indulging recklessly; to not only keep up with the Joneses, but BE the Joneses. Instead, we seek to be obedient to the messages of the Bible to love God and others and to be stewards of God’s good gift of creation. If our hearts are right in this pursuit, certain elements of our lives will be shaped in certain ways, as we make decisions according to what will honor God by cultivating personal, social, and environmental justice. A life lived in awareness of the necessary relationships to God and others should look drastically different from a life lived purely for the purpose of self-satisfaction.

This awareness, of course, can lead to intense guilt (“I’m not doing enough to live simply”) and anger (“Why doesn’t anybody else get it??”), which is why steps toward simple living must be taken with patience, humility and grace. In a fallen world, the journey toward full individual or communal maturity will never be complete. It is helpful to find a small group of people who are headed in the same direction you are at about the same pace. It’s also helpful to realize that we can often only satisfy one principle at a time.

When we were getting ready to open our fair trade store and dealing with all of the details of having a retail space, I knew that I didn’t want to use throw-away paper towels in the bathroom, for both environmental and economic reasons. So we set out to the store in search of inexpensive washcloths that we could use as mini-hand towels. They were on sale at a great price, which meant more money could be invested in stocking the store with products from disadvantaged people. Unfortunately, the cloths were manufactured in Pakistan, most likely in sweatshop conditions, and so I had to choose between ultimately imperfect options. But that’s the point at which an acknowledgement of grace is necessary, along with a commitment to work toward a culture that doesn’t force the choice to depend on “the lesser of two evils.”

I won’t pretend that the fight against the tide of consumerism, materialism, and narcissism will be instantly gratifying. Indeed, understanding the call to live simply according to biblical norms is a both a blessing and a curse in an imperfect world, and there will be many times when we’re ready to throw up our hands and surrender to indulgence and stuff. But God promises a much better kind of blessing to those who indulge in love and keep a loose grip on those things that moths and rust can easily destroy. The good news is out that we have already won the decisive victory, and no fleet of monster SUVs can change that fact.

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is the editor of catapult magazine, a bi-weekly online publication of *culture is not optional. She and her husband Rob live in west Michigan, where they founded a fair trade store and work with college students. Sabbath activities include reading, biking and cooking with local produce. This article originally appeared in catapult magazine.

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