Sometimes, it’s hard to know what I’m even trying to create when considering the concept of pursuing social, economic, or political justice.
It gets particularly confusing when I simultaneously believe that materialism and superficiality and privilege are issues of mine that are barriers to happiness. Ben and I are practicing the concept of “simple living” – owning only what we need, giving away the rest. We purposely live in a diverse low-income neighborhood and we’re invested in a whole handful of nonprofits. We have chosen not to chase after huge financial success, hoping to nestle our roots of contentment elsewhere. I have found myself feeling the most free and at peace when I am the least attached to possessions and image. I don’t feel inadequate compared to friends with higher-paying jobs or fancier cars or cooler apartments. I can choose to place my time and energy in work that is meaningful rather than lucrative. I am free from the anxiety that seems to inherently come with amassed wealth. I see family members and celebrities alike living exorbitantly and yet miserably, and want something different. (We are nowhere near perfect in this area – just learning and trying).
This line of thinking, when taken to an extreme, can start to imply that money (and possessions and prestige and the rest of it) is inherently evil. My values for simplicity coupled with my work to uplift impoverished communities therefore sometimes feels hypocritical.
Obviously that’s not the case – it’s just stuff. There aren’t any intrinsic moral qualities about it. It’s only the value, definition, and use that people attach to that stuff that have the potential to become good or bad.
But I often come back around to the tension: if wealth is something that I need to step away from for my own well-being, why would I be encouraging others into it?
A simple principle has served to frame the tension in a new way for me. It comes from a prayer that Jesus teaches, recorded in some of the gospel biographies:
“…give us this day our daily bread…”
Daily bread. That’s what everyone deserves: exactly what they need to get through each day. Enough food, enough shelter, enough educational opportunity, enough accessible transportation, enough affordable health care. Enough.
The fact is that I have more than enough. Most of my friends and family do, too. And the unquestionable reality is that a whole lot of people don’t. Not just people on the other side of the world – my neighbors. Literally.
It’s good and right for me to choose out of my excess, using it to help others get enough. And it’s good and right for me to join efforts aimed at providing access to more resources for those who can’t meet that humble standard.
I keep coming back around to this principle when my head gets clouded with the confusion of competing values or potential contradiction; it’s not wrong for me to recognize that my sizable collection of dresses can be a bit of an unhealthy obsession, but still want the high school girls I mentor to have something cute to wear on the first day of senior year.
During a month-long stay in a slum in inner-city Manila, I saw this passage framed in the tiny home of a family of three. Their house was built from cardboard, plywood, and some concrete. It contained a toilet that did not flush, a collection of buckets near a spigot to act as a shower. The kitchen, living room, and bedroom combined were the size of many American walk-in closets. It was one of the nicest and cleanest living spaces in their whole barangay (Filipino for “village”) – envied for its rare laminate flooring. This poem was the only piece of art hanging there, framed in the center of the wall:
“…give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.”
(Proverbs 30, 8-9)
I have been given many days’ worth of bread; many will never have enough for a single day at a time. I fiercely wish for the latter to change – and I am realizing that changing the former might be the most important contribution I have to making that a reality.
Hi! I'm Emily. This is my blog.
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