On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Worldliness, Simplicity, and Following the Crowd

At lot of questions have been rolling around in my brain this week. It partly has to do with my attempt to live more frugally during Lent, it partly has to do with Karen's remarks about The Upside Down Kingdom, it partly has to do with reading St. Francis de Sales, but it also has to do with conversations with other people. I am struggling with the whole concept of worldliness. Strange thing that, I struggled with the concept when I was in my teens, struggled with it in my twenties, so here it is again, albeit in a different form. At least I think it's in a different form.

St. Francis sees some things that we see as quite innocent as problematic. I have to wonder what he would think about some of our modern entertainment. Actually I'm pretty sure that he would disapprove of a lot of stuff that we find innocuous. So does that mean he was too rigid, or does it mean that we have become too ensnared by the spirit of the world? That is truly a serious question for me. I spent a lot of my youth in a church that took holiness of a certain sort very seriously. There was no drinking, smoking, movies,dancing, or card playing. Modest dress was emphasized. Among the people I still know in that sub-culture I think that card playing (although not gambling) and some movies have gotten past the ban, the other items still mostly remain. As a grown-up evangelical about the only thing that I retained was the no smoking, and that was for health reasons. I don't wear immodest clothing, but I wear blue jeans most of the time. I wonder whether St. Francis would have been more comfortable around those fundamentalist Protestants than even most orthodox Catholics. However, I saw fundamentalist holiness as a rigid, pietistic stance, and I have to admit was happy to see that you could be a serious Catholic and not be tied to the list mentality. What I wonder is was this a positive thing, or was I merely wanting to embrace the things the list prohibited? In fact was losing the list a good thing or a bad one? I still think it was good, but St. Francis and St. Therese might differ with me.

Yesterday I went to Danielle Bean's site and she mentioned the Duggar family. Interestingly, I had seen one TV program about them and watched another last night. I went to their website and looked at some of their links. There was one for modest swimwear (always an interesting subject to me) so I clicked on it. I suppose the swimwear was, well not totally ugly, it would have made ok beachwear, I guess. Frankly, I can't see ever getting my daughter or any of her friends to even consider it, however. I can't even see wearing it myself, well maybe the culotte one... So does that mean that we're just too caught up in following the crowd? Or does it mean that sticking out like a sore thumb on the beach turns people off so much they can't hear your message?

While we were watching the show last night Abby commented that she thinks that people like to watch the Duggars because they can point at them and have them reinforce their ideas that Christian homeschoolers are freaks. She said it's nice that big Catholic families don't dress like that, or have the girls and the mother wearing those particular hairstyles. That sort of shocked me because the main reason I don't wear my hair like that is that frankly it is too fine and too thin to pull that look off. I've always wanted to have hair like that. I didn't dress her in dresses and jumpers all the time, but the Polly Flinders dresses she wore when she was a little girl certainly were comparable. I thought she loved them. Maybe it's just that she doesn't see them as every day wear.

I love watching the Duggars because of their openness to life and their demonstration that having a big family is still an option. Would I make all the same choices if I were in their place. No, I wouldn't. Does that mean that they are right and I'm wrong? I don't think so. The Duggars are involved with Gothard's Basic Youth Conflicts program. David and I looked into that at one point and so did my sister-in-law. We all found it too rigid and placing too much emphasis on outward appearances and linked holiness with worldly financial success. The families we've known who've embraced it do seem weird, at least by worldly standards. The question the I'm pondering is whether that means that they've really gone too far, or whether we've been too influenced by the culture?

Embracing simplicity, without the Little House on the Prairie dresses and the Beaver Cleaver haircuts, is a challenge in its own right. How much that we have do we actually need? The microwave went on the fritz this month. Yesterday we hauled in the microwave the kids had at college (a cast off of my mother's) and set it up. What I've been pondering for a couple of weeks is, do I really need a microwave. After all I didn't even have one until about 20 years ago. I certainly functioned in the kitchen competently without one, so why do I feel such a need for one now?

This seems like a small thing, I'm sure. Yet, I think that the reason that so many young couples have a difficult time envisioning living on one income is due to small things like that. The very concept of using penny pinching techniques like eating oatmeal for breakfast instead of cold cereal, or using powdered milk (at least for cooking), or eating things that aren't your favorites seems foreign to a lot of the twenty somethings I know. The idea of buying clothes at the second hand store or eating whatever is on sale rather than always being able to get boneless chicken breasts and steaks, or cooking for yourself rather than eating out, or ordering in, is becoming a something unthinkable. The idea of being without a television, dvd player, vcr, computer, DSL internet, Play Station, cell phone (in addition to a land line) and an Ipod and Palm pilot is very foreign to them. They've grown up with that stuff and they figure they need it. Even one quite poor couple we know has insisted on DSL, the expensive cable package, the huge television, etc. Then they wonder why, despite the fact that they have been provided with super cheap housing, they still need two incomes to survive (and are still hitting someone up for loans constantly).

So, many of them would rather sacrifice having their children raised by their own mother than sacrifice their creature comforts, even a little bit. That bothers me, a lot! I spent a lot of my time as a child with a mother who worked, albeit only part-time and in the family business. I know what it's like to come home to an empty house. I know what it's like to get put with the babysitter. I even know what it's like to go to work with mom. My sister and I both chose against that and stayed home with our kids because quite frankly we felt like we were always second to the business. We never felt like our mom took any particular interest in the things we were doing. My father was even more married to the business. He was so married to it that he didn't come to my college graduation and barely made it to my high school one. So when I see the next generation starting down that path, thinking that financial well-being is the most important thing, I cringe. The irony is that my parents never had that financial well-being until we were all grown up. They ended up not even enjoying it for very long. By the time they'd actually achieved it my father had less than two years to live. All that work, all those hours of family time sacrificed, for what?

My mother-in-law once told me that she thought that one of the really bad things about television was that it made people think that it was normal and usual to have things that only fairly rich people could actually afford. She thought that it really caused working class people to attempt to live far above their means. I think that she was right. If we are attentive at all we notice that the programs on television are taking up less and less of the time slot and the commercials more and more of it. What are all those commercials doing to our attitudes?

We lived the simple life back when we were growing up because all the money that got made had to get poured back into the business. Our clothes were hand-me-downs from cousins, purchased at the second hand store, or the discount store. With my own kids I used the second hand store when they were too little to be bothered by it. Later we did things like making them pay the difference between the designer brand and the generic type. They have learned to buy quality stuff, but to be satisfied with less of it. We've lived with the frustration of wood heat and a partly finished house (built by my husband) because by doing so we could live on one income.

Our choice to live simply now is not so that we can someday have more. It's more a reflection of the fact that we don't think that we need to have our security and well being so tied up in material stuff. I hope we've gotten that message across to our kids, but I'm not always so sure that we have.

The culture out there is always pulling at us. It's telling us that we need status jobs, status clothes, places to play, exciting things to do. Am I wrong in suggesting that Christ is calling us to something different? It's not that the jobs are necessarily wrong, but when they take the focus away from God and our primary vocation, they create problems. It's not that dressing in a contemporary style is wrong (as long as it isn't provocative), but when people are judged only by what they wear, isn't that a problem? Father Romano spoke about this at Mass this morning. He mentioned having deliberately placed a poorly dressed person (who smelled badly as well) in a pew to see what people would do. People changed their seats. It gave him an opportunity to do some catechesis (I gather the person was in on the object lesson ahead of time). We judge by appearances in many ways.

Activities can be a problem as well.Going out for coffee, going to the theater, going to concerts, going skiing, or snowboarding, aren't wrong in and of itself. When it pulls our focus away from our faith life, or when particular entertainment eats away at our faith life, then there is a problem. When it involves spending money that could be spent in better ways, it may be a problem. When you choose the place you live because of the entertainment available, is that a symptom of something amiss?

So what does it mean to be ensnared by the world and its values? Is it only about embracing the culture of death by supporting abortion and euthanasia and the culture of pleasure by embracing illicit sexual relations? I think there really is more to it than that. The reasons behind abortion and euthanasia are at the core about not being able to have as much stuff, or as much time, or not wanting as many burdensome responsibilities. At the core of that is selfishness. We are addicted to pleasure, we are addicted to self-centeredness. In America, that is true to one degree or another of the best of us. Some people take jobs that conflict with what they say are their core values because the jobs pay well. Some people take jobs when they should be staying home with their children because it pays for a nicer car, better vacations, nicer clothes, a bigger house. Often we don't even notice when we're doing it.

So do I need a new microwave? Probably not. Will I end up getting one? Well that's probably going to be up to a family vote and I may get outvoted (everyone else thinks we NEED one). Will I continue to struggle over these issues? Probably. Would I appreciate inpur? I certainly would. I especially would like input from those of you who are living frugally and simply, and don't feel deprived in the process. I'd like input from people who are wearing less than up to date fashions. I'd even like to hear from some of the twenty somethings who are hearing the siren song of the world and are struggling with it. I'd even like to hear from those of you who think all of this is making a mountain out of a molehill. So talk to me please.


At 6:59 PM, Blogger Karen E. said...

I struggle with this, too, Liz, and we swing back and forth on the pendulum ... I know that by American standards, we live frugally, but by world standards, we are quite rich. How to strike the right balance?

At 8:53 AM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

I know a couple of tweny-somethings who dream of fitting all of their families' worldly belonging into the back of a pickup truck. I know at least one of them is very interested in mission work. I don't know if those ideas will/can ever pan out for them, at least in this country.

I wonder, what are the guidelines for living simply? If you give things up in a trade-off (for ease, or other comforts) is it still living simply? Should we be focused on the ideal of simplicity, or must it come with other good motives, like not supporting amoral business practices, or family time? At what point do we become too focused on our own asceticism?

I wasn't aware of all the ways you try to live simply, or your motives. I admire you for that, especially because family life is the most difficult to tame into simplicity.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Lynne said...

What a wonderful priest you have!


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