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In Defense of Pointless Asceticism
To be more generous, train yourself to see how much you really have
Three quick hypotheticals:
Suppose you, a millionaire, want to make a sandwich. At the store, you find:
The fanciest loaf of bread you’ve ever seen, made from wheat grown on the moon and yeast harvested from the Marianas Trench, paint with gold leaf and studded with actual diamonds. It sells for $2500 per slice.
Normal bread. It sells for about five cents per slice.
You can either make normal sandwiches and donate enough money to stop a kid from dying every time you eat, or you can gorge yourself on gold-crusted moon bread. In this case there is very clearly a reasonable option and an evil option.
Now suppose that you, a hypothetical grad student named Colin, are doing your weekly shopping. At the store, you find:
A nice loaf of sourdough bread. It sells for about twenty-five cents per slice.
Target-brand bread. It sells for about five cents per slice.
You can either make a normal sandwich and donate enough money to extend someone’s life by a day or so, or you can enjoy a much more delicious meal. Here the tradeoff seems much less clear-cut.
Now you’ve eaten the sandwich, and you find that you’ve permanently stained a beloved shirt with mustard. You can:
Replace the shirt, for about $25.
Keep this shirt in your clothing rotation, donating enough money to extend someone’s life by about three months, but people might judge you for wearing a shirt with a stain on it.
Last year I would have told you to buy the sourdough bread but not the new shirt, because it’s worth restricting your effort to bigger decisions — after all, if I make myself miserable saving two dollars per week on bread but still spend $100 going out to eat each week, it’s hard to call whatever it is I’m doing “frugal”.
But over the past few months I’ve started to make more money, and I found that as I indulged the part of my brain that buys expensive bread, it became easier and easier to justify replacing the shirt! And the more willing I was to replace the shirt, the easier it became to justify even larger and more extravagant spending.
I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve watched the same pattern in friends, churches, and movements. When you start to make more money, you’re able to afford nicer things — the fancier bread, newer clothes, classier furniture. And then they start to feel normal and you’re tempted to buy even nicer things. Until eventually when someone like Jesus comes by and says you’re supposed to sell it all to give to the poor, you say “well he couldn’t possibly mean me, because I just have normal stuff!”
Has this happened to you?
Has materialism warped your vision of what’s normal?
Here’s one way to test it: try to guess the global median income (in U.S. dollars). In other words: if you ranked everyone in the world from “most income” to “least income”, what would be the halfway point? How much money does a typical person around the world make? What is “normal”?
(The number I have in mind is adjusted for prices, so it’s fair to think in U.S. terms: the fact that things cost more here is already taken into account. In order to buy the same quantity of goods and services as a typical person around the world could, how much money would you need?)
Do you have a number in mind? If not, take a guess before scrolling down. What seems like an average amount of money to make?
The global median income is somewhere around three thousand dollars per year for a single adult, or about $7500 for a family of four. (Source)
Aspects of this fit with my intuition. I know that, as a grad student making about $35,000 per year, I live a very comfortable life. I have a nice apartment, eat delicious food, buy whatever I want, and even have a Spotify Premium account. In my mind, I feel like I make maybe 20-30% more than the average person.
But I don’t feel like I make ten times as much money as the average person. And the fact that this number sounds so improbable is a sign that I’ve let my perception of reality become fundamentally warped.
So if we’re going to truly be generous — if we’re going to really try to pursue an ethic that says that the global poor are just as important as we are — it seems to me our inability to perceive our wealth (and therefore our inability to categorize our desires as “greed”) is one of the central psychological problems we have to face.
It’s obvious to us that the American dream is normal, that the amount of money we spend is perfectly reasonable, that God certainly wouldn’t want us to go without [thing that only 5% of the global population can afford]. And yet we know objectively, for certain, as an indisputable matter of fact that these things aren’t true. Is there really any chance that this deep misunderstanding of reality hasn’t fundamentally distorted what we think we owe our global neighbors?
I still think that the numbers are important. Better to save five thousand dollars than twelve. Better to save twelve dollars than thirty-five cents. What the global poor receive from us is far more important than our personal states of purity.
But if we want to train our brains away from the addictive character of affluence, it’s still worth buying the cheap bread. It’s worth sewing up the holes in our blankets instead of buying new ones. It’s worth extending the life of our shoes with duct tape and super glue, and wearing mustard-stained shirts. It’s worth doing anything and everything we can to push back on our craven addiction to material comfort.
As you start to do this, your brain will congratulate you for being a martyr. You’ll get to feel smug and noble and honorable because you were willing to eat a slightly less tasty sandwich for the sake of the global poor. You alone were willing to sacrifice great portions of your happiness to make the world a better place.
And then, as soon as you stop to think about it, you will feel like an idiot. Your great, noble self-sacrifice is … to have a higher standard of living than 90% of people, instead of 95%? To sleep under a perfectly functional blanket that doesn’t look as pretty as yours friends’? That people will know you once ate mustard?
This feeling is humbling. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s undeniably life-giving. It’s healthy to recognize that what we call “extreme sacrifice” is still what 99% of people who have ever lived would call “an grossly affluent lifestyle”, because it’s a step towards unraveling the lies we tell ourselves about what we deserve and what God wants us to have.
It’s a step towards take other people and their needs seriously.
It’s not the entire story. There’s certainly more to do.
But it’s something, and that’s worth celebrating.
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