Randall Gerard writes back...

Location: Out West

An old-fashioned guy grappling with new-fangled ways.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Envy and the American dream..

Recently, a friend curious about our new living arrangements asked me a revealing question.
"But.. aren't you afraid of what people will think of you, now that you live in a trailer park?"
As I said, this person is a friend, so he shall remain anonymous. I was sorely tempted to verbally thrash him, but the Lord was merciful to me and I counted to 10 instead. It occurred to me that perhaps many others have had similar thoughts, but for whatever reason they haven't broached the subject with me. Therefore, my friend ought to be commended for having the courage to bring up a subject that is mostly taboo. That subject is money. Not just money in broad general strokes, but my neighbor's money along with important social attitudes about money. Questions like his are valuable because they often reveal the motives that guide our earning and spending decisions.
At any rate, I didn't respond to the implied insult; the obvious social stigma that many attach to trailer parks and those who live in them. I know all the 'you might be a redneck' jokes, and have often repeated them myself, so honestly, I wasn't offended by any of that. Instead, I was struck by how completely we've fallen victim to advertisers and their constant appeals to 'one up' your neighbor. After all, you deserve it. You should have long vacations every year, new cars (and presumably the pretty blond sitting in the passenger seat in the commercial as well), bigger, better houses in gated neighborhoods.. these are all touted as things that signal your obvious worth as a person. How else can we interpret the mantra, 'You deserve it'?
Let me reiterate, I do believe in personal responsibility and that everyone should live within their means. But I'm also convinced that there is a special place in hell for bankers and advertisers who stoke the fires of envy, so they may feed their own greed. But even Christians today seem incapable of discerning the envy that permeates their financial decisions.
And so.. I asked my friend, "Why should I be concerned for my reputation because of where I live?".
Long silence. "Well.. people who live in trailer parks usually can't afford anything nicer.. I mean, don't you want your family to have the best you can afford?" "Brother" I said, "this is the best I can afford given our commitment to avoid debt the rest of our lives." "Oh". The conversation ground to a halt there. He apparently didn't want to know why we were avoiding debt. I didn't especially blame him; such knowledge really throws a monkey wrench in your personal American dream. And it tends to reveal a social attitude towards money that has more to do with hell then heaven. This attitude is revealed quite succinctly in Ecclesiastes 4:4:
"Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind."
Obviously, the preacher is not saying work itself is vain, only the attitude of envy that tends to poison our work, making it an empty striving after wind. In another place he says:
"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Ecclesiastes 2:24,25
I'm tempted to paraphrase St. Paul here when he said the 'Law is good, if you use it lawfully'. To the preacher, work is good if it's not poisoned by a spirit of envy. It would behoove us then to root envy, in all it's slippery forms, out of our lives so we can enjoy our work without reference to whatever others may think. Towards that end I offer the following as 'envy detectors'.
- If you find yourself comparing what you have to whatever your neighbor, siblings, father and mother have... you might be envious.
- If you listen to gossip about the finances of others, or spread such speculations yourself... you might be envious.. among other things.
- If you find that you are vaguely uneasy, resentful or defensive around people who SEEM to have more then you... you might be envious.
- If you find that you are smug and aloof around people who SEEM to have less then you... you are definitely self-righteous and proud.. and it might be because of envy.
- If you value appearances over reality, style over substance, subtle deceptions over honesty and transparency... it might be because of envy.
- If you catch yourself saying or thinking 'I just gotta have that' but consistently fail to examine your motives as to WHY you feel that way... you might be envious.
- If you tend to define success in terms of setting or reaching financial goals, or in terms of what you own... you might be envious.
- If you are caught up in maintaining 'appearances' and are always 'playing up' your financial condition in an attempt to impress others... you have become a liar and a hypocrite; probably because of pride and envy.
- If you spend to manipulate or earn affection from others... you might be envious. Or, just foolish.
Learn to spot envy in your own thinking and attitudes and you will very quickly see how the rest of our culture is saturated with it. It is a major component of the 'American dream'. It is a warped measure people often use to determine their ultimate worth. It is an attitude that ensures people will be owned by their possessions instead of the other way around. In addition, people who are envious tend to use people and love things, which ultimately destroys their relationships, and there they sit, with a pile of stuff around them, and no one to share with. If you want to be lonely in this world, be envious. But, if you'd rather not, cultivate contentment, for this is the opposite of every form of envy and covetousness. Godliness with contentment, Paul says, is great gain. Did you get that? Contentment is gain, so envy must be.. loss.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Rejoicing in the bills!

O.K., my last post was sorta grumpy. As a matter of fact, as I review the posts on my blog, an impartial reader could draw the conclusion that I'm all about what's wrong in the world. Or, that I'm all about gloom and doom. But I'm really an up-beat guy, so I want to begin dispelling that negative impression starting with this installment. So then.. why am I rejoicing in my bills, of all things?

Well, first of all, there's not that many of them. We're down to rent, utilities, insurance and charitable giving; all of which comes to about half my check. If I can figure out how to get off the grid and out of the extortion insurance companies charge, while paying cash for a home and acreage, we'll be pretty close to zero bills. My wife and I were trying to recall the last time our income exceeded our outgo by that much, and after much deliberation, the answer is: never! Never in our married lives have we had so much disposable income as a percentage of net income. And it's a good thing, too, for we are about to incur some heavy-duty mid-life expenses. Next week one of our sons is getting married, and we're on the hook for things like the rehearsal dinner, travel to North Dakota and back, and honeymoon expenses for the happy couple. But you know what? It's ALL paid for without borrowing a dime. We can truly relax and enjoy a happy and blessed event in the lives of our son and daughter-in-law to be. You just can't put a price on that!

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We just enjoyed a scenic and restful 8-day camping trip to Oregon and Idaho, all of it paid for without borrowing. Our daughter is due back to school for her senior year at College of the Ozarks at the end of August. All of it's paid. Homeschooling our youngest for the next school year is underway and paid. Additional trips around the holidays to see friends and family are being planned and handled with no added debt, and no depletion of savings. Next summer we will give our oldest daughter in marriage to a fine young man. They are planning a tasteful, modest, small wedding, I admit, but it too is paid for. Truly, our cup runneth over.

None of the financial blessing we have experienced lately has come about because I'm a financial whiz. I'm not. My wife reconciles the checkbook every month, because I have no patience for it, and no inclination if I did have the patience. The whole subject of making, saving and investing money bores me to tears. I'd much rather write and talk about politics, world events, theology, agriculture, hunting, making beer.. anything but money. I only have an interest in this subject as it relates to history and macro-economics, or it impinges upon personal morality and faith. Otherwise, I couldn't care less. But that is the beauty of down-sizing and simplifying your life-style. It doesn't take a Ben Bernanke to live within your means and prosper wonderfully as a result! Anyone can do this!