I attended a leadership conference at a famously successful mega-church in Northern Illinois a few years ago. This church always astounded my small-town Episcopal sensibilities. I remember growing up and going through Sunday school with only one other classmate – the rector’s son. This church has a youth program that has more high-schoolers than a city high school. The “sanctuary” was actually a stage with jumbo screens all around it, two balconies, and seating for, oh, 15,000. Definitely not an Anglican atmosphere. Also, they have a food court and cafeteria. It’s quite a production. During this conference, one of the speakers (who was a missionary to an Asian country that I can’t recall) talked about the American Church’s view of success. He pointed out that it is basically the same as our economic model. On a grid or graph of production over time, our goal is always to go “up and to the right”. Think of your classic board meeting cartoon with a graph on an easel. Sales, attendance, production, whatever, we want to see that arrow climbing up and to the right. That’s progress. And we want it always to go in that direction, with no cap or end point. His point was that in building churches, you build relationships, and there is no “up and to the right” measurement or trend necessary to success. Success can be in another direction entirely, like deeper. I got to thinking that we have adopted that “up and to the right” philosophy across so many categories, and failed to think critically about whether that trend is beneficial or not.
The movie “Zeitgeist Going Forward” addresses the global economy and makes the same point. We keep inflating supply and demand at the peril of our planet, and we make no moves to slow down or stop. Why do we do this? What ever happened to the concept of scale? Who said that ‘bigger’ or ‘more’ is a better value for everything? Think of all the restaurants that you know that serve much more food than you can comfortably eat at one sitting. Think of all the super-stores that you have walked that have more brands of cereal than can be shelved in a 10-foot rack. Think of the buildings and monuments that we erect that are larger than any of the previous decade. Think of the businesses you know that have merged and of the mom-and-pop places of your childhood that have folded. Where do you buy your coffee? Where do you go when you want to buy a toilet plunger? How many TVs did your family have when you were growing up? How many TVs did the next generation of your family have? Or cars? Think of food availability and population. They are always linked in the natural world. When there’s more food for a certain species available, that species always experiences a population boom. Think of mice in a granary. Mice don’t plant and harvest grain, but think if they could. Their population would boom and then they’d work to make more food, and then their population would boom again, etc. A never-ending cycle, if nothing interrupts it. Eventually, the resources are exhausted and the population corrects itself. Wouldn’t the same thing apply to humans? How do we feel when populations in Somalia are dying because of resource scarcity? Is that a tragedy or is that nature correcting an unsustainable trend going “up and to the right”?
I’m not about to say that I have a “correct” approach to any of these issues. I do want to think deeply about the scale of my life, and to adjust it according to changes in my situation in order to achieve balance. For one thing, I now shop and cook for a household of 2 instead of 6. That took me a while to adjust to. I don’t have any closet space here, so I’ve stopped buying clothes. I like that I can walk to an Ace Hardware store that has been in the village for 90 years in the same old building. I don’t even know where the StuffMart is. Steve & I don’t own a TV. Downsizing is really satisfying to me. It feels like a relief. There’s less that I feel I “need” to do and have, and I find myself more involved in things I want to do and have. I feel like my home economy is something that I can sustain, not something that is going to overwhelm me. Right now, I have no debt at all. That’s something I really like.
How do you feel when you see something that is outrageously out of scale? Do you laugh? Do you judge it and get mad? How do you feel about waste? Do you think that you have those reactions because of the way you were raised? What kind of messages did you internalize? Did your mother ever mention starving children in China when she wanted you to eat your vegetables? Did that make sense to you? Where do you see life as abundant? Where do you see life in terms of scarcity? (we’re probably mixed in these attitudes; I don’t want to set up a duality) I like to be frugal in lots of things, but I also buy opera tickets. I like having the responsibility to make these choices. And I’m glad they don’t kick you out of the Lyric if you show up in an outfit from Goodwill.
P.S. I just logged in to Yahoo news and read that President Obama has stopped the EPA’s proposed regulations on ground-level ozone…in order to allow American industries to go further “up and to the right”. People! Can’t we come up with a less destructive way to live?