consumerism

Caring About The Other

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by Pamela J. Pettyjohn

I grew up in a church where only men could teach junior high age classes and above, because women were not allowed to teach men. What does it say to a girl, when a wise adult woman, a faithful Christian woman who leads an exemplary life for Jesus, is not qualified to teach a middle school boy? What it said to me is that, despite the statement of Galatians 3:28 that we are all equal in Christ, women were less equal than men in my church. Certainly, the women could cook the food, clean the church, care for the babies, teach young children, and sing in the choir, but they were not qualified to teach teens and adults, serve as a deacon, or ever be a minister. So what happens when a girl in this environment feels called by God to be a minister? In my experience, she is given a book about being a pastor’s wife. As an adult, I am now part of a denomination that does support the leadership of women in the church, and I am finally following the call to ministry which I first heard as a teenager.  However, I have not forgotten what it is like to be considered “less than” and unworthy; this experience continues to shape my thinking and choices on a daily basis.

DSC09606Until March of 2013, I was not a coffee drinker and didn’t even like the smell of coffee. It was an increasing lack of sleep from a convergence of events, including beginning seminary, which turned me into a coffee drinker for the caffeine boost. Granted, it had to be “milked and sweetened up” to be tolerable, but nonetheless, I had to admit that it appeared I was going to be drinking coffee on a regular basis into the foreseeable future. I also had to admit that I had easy access to fair trade coffee, and if I was going to be drinking it regularly, I needed to buy fair trade. It was not an easy decision since my family lives on a very tight budget. Despite that, we spend an extra $3-$5 a bag more to buy fair trade coffee. This is a small price to pay for knowing that these dollars join with those of others to ensure more humane treatment of those who grow the coffee beans to give me my caffeine fix. Yes, we need to be frugal with our funds, but this is a time we can and should put “the other” above ourselves.

The “others” are not just coffee growers in other countries though. They are right here among us in the “land of plenty.” When the workers who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still need government assistance to make ends meet are vilified, they are turned into “others,” marginalized and treated as unworthy of the concern of those of us who are not quite as bad off financially. Nick Hanauer makes a strong economic case, speaking from the perspective of a millionaire many times over, for increasing the minimum wage.  But for me, this is not just an economic issue, or even just a human rights issue. It is a theological issue. Each of us is created in the image of God and worthy of respect and deserving of being treated fairly. Yet, it is easy to lose sight of that in the quest to get the “best deal” for our family. Those we are tempted to treat as “others” are also our family, our brothers and sisters. They are our neighbors, both in the U.S. and outside of it. We need to do what we can to lift them up.

This is a continuing journey, and my family has certainly not arrived at the place of making every purchase based on ethics instead of economics.  But I take heart that my son is aware of how unfairly some workers are treated and the existence of fair trade items at a much younger age than I. He knows that, while we may not be able to avoid all products that come from unfair sources, there are two companies which our family purposely avoids because we do know about their mistreatment of workers, as well as the negative impact which one of these companies has on the environment. Just because we cannot be perfect consumers does not negate the small steps we can take to show that we want others to be treated humanely, a fair wage to be paid, and environmentally friendly practices to be employed. A little at a time, our purchasing practices will make a difference as we thoughtfully choose to care about “the other.” And together with other families, we will raise a generation who will grow up to make an even bigger difference, of that I am convinced.

Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.

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Anxiety and Grace

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by Claire Bischoff

In the middle of the coldest January most Minnesotans can remember, our family spent the late afternoon and evening at a large indoor amusement park (things that are usually outdoors, like playgrounds and amusement parks, get built indoors in Minnesota so that we can use them for more than two months a year). Since I am pregnant, I did not pay for the wrist band that would let me accompany my family on the rides. I contented myself watching them and reading a good book when the lines were long.

At one point, my husband and older son ventured off to go on the scary rides, while I chaperoned my younger son. As it turns out, a grown up can ride for free with a child when that child is not yet tall enough to experience the ride alone. So I went on the carousel with my younger son before he pulled me into the queue for Swiper’s Sweeper. I had been on the ride the year before and remembered it as being fairly harmless. As we waited our turn, my son pointed at the sign advertising the risks for the ride, saying, “Look, mom, no babies.” Indeed, the sign had an image of pregnant woman with a big line through her growing belly. I considered telling my son he would have to wait to go on the ride until we found dad and his big brother, but then I thought of all the times he has to wait or has not gotten to do what he really wants to do because he is the second child. So we went on the ride. He loved it; I spent the whole time trying to brace my body with arms and legs so that my midsection would remain motionless.

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Fast forward to midnight. I had been in bed for two hours and could not sleep. I was in the middle of an anxiety spiral, sparked by the thought that I had done irreparable harm to the baby growing inside me by going on that one amusement park ride. I could not shake an image of the fetus’s neck being broken by the centrifugal force of the ride. Then I started cataloging everything else I had done in the first fourteen weeks of my pregnancy that could have negative repercussions. I had fallen hard on my backside at least a dozen times when we had gone cross country skiing the week before. I had eaten cold roast beef on a handful of occasions simply because I love a good roast beef sandwich. I had not taken my prenatal vitamins and DHA supplement for a number of weeks in the first trimester because my nausea was so bad I could not bear to swallow them. Underneath all of this cataloging was a heap of guilt and shame that I had not always done the absolute best thing for this baby. How could I be so selfish as to eat roast beef? How could I be so careless as to go cross country skiing?

In the more rational light of morning, I started to interrogate my anxiety using a question I ask my students to use when doing cultural analysis: What human hands are work here, how, and why? Certainly, the consumer economy benefits from the anxiety of mothers. We are encouraged to buy a slew of products to safety-proof our homes and to enroll our children in activities starting just after birth to insure their well-rounded development (the newest trend: baby DJ classes). Toys increasingly are marketed to more and more defined age groups, so that every six months we find ourselves wondering, “Are these blocks made for a one-year-old challenging my eighteen-month-old enough? Might was well recycle the Harvard application.”

Mothers’ anxiety also can trap us in an individualism that allows us to focus on the well-being of our own children while ignoring broader issues that affect the well-being of all children. (This dynamic is similar to what Elizabeth Gandolfo wrote about in her post “D-E-A-D Is A Four Letter Word.) We are so sapped of energy from worrying about our children that we do not have energy left to organize and campaign to insure that all mothers have access to proper nutrition, clean air and water, and adequate prenatal health care. In the end, our anxiety is a force for separation, since it is born from a sense of scarcity and impending danger that drives us to get what we can for ourselves and our families, often at the expense of what others need.

So how can mothers break out of the anxiety spiral and its inward focus? There are two things that have tended to help me. First, I try to talk about my anxieties with others. Knowing that I am not the only one who feels guilty for feeling relieved that I have not signed my son up for a spring sport or that I am not the only one who spent an entire pregnancy feeling that I was one bad burrito away from disaster can help loosen anxiety’s hold. When we come together, rather than keeping ourselves apart, we may find out that what was not imaginable alone suddenly becomes possible in cooperation.

Second, I try to pray. By invoking a greater power in the universe, prayer reminds me that I am only human and in control of very little that affects my family and me. Far from increasing my anxiety, this frees me to attend to that which I can control and to let go of worry about that which is beyond my influence.  This feels like grace.

We would love to hear your comments about factors you see contributing to an increase in mothers’ anxiety and what you have done to help loosen anxiety’s hold in your own life. Please don’t hesitate to comment (either here, on Facebook or via Twitter @MotheringMatter).

Countering Consumerism

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by Elizabeth Gandolfo

Consumerism has been a topic of great concern in my teaching, research and parenting practices over the course of the Fall, and especially now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us.  (I actually had to tear myself away from shopping on Amazon to write this post!)  I am currently teaching a course on Religion and the Environment, which culminates this week with an exploration of religious resources for subverting the culture of overconsumption that is destroying not only the planet, but also human bodies and spirits.   This culture, which has been manufactured to meet the profit motives of market capitalism, consumes its subjects with dissatisfaction, anxiety, and insatiable desire.  It cannibalizes the lives of other human beings who pay the price (in low wages, poor working conditions, environmental injustice, etc.) for privileged communities’ access to cheap and convenient consumer goods.  And it devours the planetary ecosystems and atmospheric conditions on which our lives and well-being depend.  In her most recent book, Blessed Are the Consumers, Sallie McFague argues that “we are living in la-la land, a place that has no relationship to the finitude of our actual home, planet earth.  We are living beyond our means, both financially and ecologically.  We are consuming with an insatiable, and unsustainable, appetite” (18).  If we are to face this reality honestly and create a world in which other human beings and the planet as a whole can survive and thrive, posits McFague, then we the relentless over-consumers of the Global North must practice restraint in our personal and public consumptive practices and learn to share the world’s limited resources fairly.  It is in this process of kenosis, or compassionate self-emptying, that we might overcome the dissatisfaction and anxiety of consumer culture and find true self-fulfillment.  As a Christian theologian with liberationist, feminist, and ecological commitments to justice and sustainability, I couldn’t agree with McFague more.  As a suburban, middle-class mother of three young children, I am struggling with how to incorporate the practice of consumer kenosis into my family’s everyday life.

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Over the past half-century or so, middle-class parents in the United States have become excessively anxious about the health, safety, comfort, and future academic, social and professional success of our offspring.  In an attempt to protect, enrich, and entertain our children, we implicate ourselves in whole markets of vastly unjust and unnecessary systems of production and consumption that exploit other human beings and contribute to ecological destruction.  Most middle-class parents like myself are a long way from even imagining a world in which the material comfort and entertainment of our own children are relativized, let alone sacrificed, for the sake of children across the world and the health of the planet as a whole.  Parenting, it turns out, poses a unique and troubling obstacle to the kenosis of consumer culture.

I have found that my gendered role as a mother also plays into this challenge in very unsettling ways.  Since I have made the choice to stay at home to care for my young children, I am responsible for acquiring, organizing, storing, cleaning up, throwing out and giving away most of the consumer goods that enter our household.  When I first became pregnant, I found it surprisingly easy to get sucked into the massive and manipulative marketplace of baby registries, birthing balls, bella bands, nursing nightgowns, and parenting books.  After the birth of our first child, my husband and I began to accumulate (by choice and by chance, and mostly under my maternal direction) inordinate amounts of ‘stuff’: baby equipment, clothing, stuffed animals, toys, books, DVDs, arts and craft supplies, play dough, and much much more.   Even when we don’t do the shopping, it all just keeps coming as gifts, hand-me-downs, preschool-made crafts, and so on.  Rather than spending quality time with my children, I dedicate precious hours of each day to the frustrating and spiritually deadening task of maintaining all of their stuff.  When and how will it end!?

My acute academic awareness of social location tells me that I should tag this post #firstworldproblems.  Obviously my life is not threatened by the mountains of consumer goods that overcrowd our home.  But this is part of the whole point—however exhausting and spiritually deadening I find it to keep up with my family’s consumer lifestyle, it is not my well-being or that of my family that is most urgently at stake here.  Rather, it is the life of the planet and the well-being of human communities all over the world that suffer the adverse economic, social, cultural and ecological effects of our culture’s chronic problem with “affluenza.”

As Christmas approaches, I am finding it immensely difficult to restrain (and re-train) my consumer desires vis-à-vis my children.  I know what I should do—I  should go delete all (or at least most!) of the items I just placed in my Amazon shopping cart in the 15 minutes prior to writing this post.  I should spend time studying and implementing some of the counter-consumerist resources offered through organizations like Center for a New American Dream (which sponsors a “Simplify the Holidays” page) and Advent Conspiracy.  I should take the time to purge my household of at least half of our stuff (as suggested by Kim John Payne in Simplicity Parenting).

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And, finally, I should take a spiritual step back from the frenzy and contemplate, really contemplate, what it means that the infinite power of Divine Love became human flesh in the womb of a peasant woman, was born in a cold stall in the occupied territory of ancient Palestine, and was laid in a manger far from his parents’ home, all for the sake of compassionate solidarity with a suffering world.  I suspect that all the practical tips in the world will not help me to counter consumerism without the practical transformation that can come from this (or some other form of) liberating contemplative practice.

Do you hope to counter your own complicity in consumer culture this Christmas?  If so, what helps you to restrain your consumerist desires and how do you find the freedom to focus your time, energy, and resources on what really matters?