Thursday, July 4, 2013

Learning to live with enough


Studying, school holidays, blah blah blah: sadly, I have nothing new for the blog. Instead, here's a piece I wrote for Zadok Perspectives No. 117. It was first published in the summer of 2013. The picture shows a selection of this week's gleaned fruit: persimmons, grapefruit, lemons, and cumquats. Another two kilos of grapefruit are in the veggie crisper. More than enough, even for grapefruit-loving me!


As a teenager I lived in the US, and I never became accustomed to the waste so many North Americans took for granted. It was epitomised by my youth group breakfasts. A boy would pick up a donut, take a bite, and throw the rest in the trash. A minute later, he'd pick up a second donut, a different flavour perhaps, take another bite, then throw that donut out, too. It never occurred to him that there was a cost involved in the donut, bigger perhaps that the dollar someone else had paid for it; or that there was a moral duty to eat it up; and when I, an awkwardly self-righteous Australian and newcomer in their midst, raised the issue, everyone looked at me askance.

He was, of course, only mimicking a wider society where restaurant servings were often double or triple what I considered enough, and where food – and everything – was thrown out with impunity. I recently read that 40% of all food produced in the United States is discarded, and that certainly tallies with my informal observations.

Before we become too smug, however, FoodWise estimates that Australians also chuck out a great deal: 180 kilograms of food waste per person per year. And it's not just food. How often do we send clothes to the op shop because we are, quite simply, sick of them? How often do we update our technology, our furniture or our cars, for no real reason? How rarely do we use things up, or wear things out?

And how much is enough? The population issues that place so much pressure on our planet circulate around this question. How much food, and what type? Is clean drinking water enough or must we drink filtered water from plastic bottles? How many cars, computers or lounge rooms do we really need? I know many women with forty or fifty pairs of trousers; could two or three pairs suffice?

At least until recently, there has been more than enough in the world to go around as long as the rich – and anyone reading this is rich – are willing to live with less. If we learned to live with enough, rather than the gross extravagance we take as the norm, then perhaps population wouldn't be such a pressing issue.

The Christian tradition offers a challenging perspective. The early church lived out a radical fellowship in which people lived from a common purse and learned to be content with enough. To each according to their needs, from each according to their gifts: this didn't originate with Marx but with the Acts of the Apostles. Yet most of us in the Christian church, let alone our society as a whole, have moved so far from this way of life that it is seen as deeply suspect.

Perhaps, though, it is time to revisit it. I am not advocating a radical communism instituted through violence from on high; but perhaps there are ways that we can practice sharing, and practice acknowledging that we have enough. Let me give you some examples from my family's small efforts.

My family eats many gleaned foods, and little meat. We are called to stewardship which implies a careful management of that which has been entrusted to our care. Thus I prioritise 'gift' foods – grapefruit overhanging a laneway, greens found on the roadside, a box of plums from a friend's tree – over bought foods; and when I am shopping, I prioritise local, sustainable or fair foods over others. We also grow what we can in our garden: leaves, nuts, fruits, herbs and, of course, eggs.

Our clothes are mostly second hand or made from organic or recycled fibres. As for how many, I am trying to find the point of 'enough', that is, where I still need to launder very regularly but do not have an underpants crisis!

We use bikes and public transport to get around. We do have a car, which we use as little as possible; over the years, we have been involved in informal car share networks so that other friends feel less pressure to purchase cars of their own.

Most of us own big possessions that are rarely used. Years ago, I belonged to a church with a resource directory. The family-sized tent, the trailer, the food dehydrator, the holiday house – whatever people were willing to share was placed on a list for others to borrow. It not only reduced the amount of stuff everyone owned; it also raised questions. Did neighbours need a deep freeze each or could they share one? Could they share a clothes dryer? Our society's wealth means that many of us have never had to learn how to share anything much more significant that the last slice of cake, but perhaps we could look back to the early church and teach ourselves again.

It's certainly easier to share when possessions are held lightly. For example, we have dozens of wine glasses: they are an annual gift from my husband's workplace and very useful. Friends feel they can borrow them when they have a party, and if some are smashed, then so be it. We also have many books, and years ago I realised that it was better to give them away, and be delighted if they came back, than to be hung up over their return.

These are just a few simple ways we can experiment with 'enough'. Few of us are ready for, or even called to, a radical discipleship where we sell all our possessions and give what we have to the poor; but we may as well practice sharing, right now, just in case the call comes.

And I'll let you in on a secret. Once we realise we have enough, something strange happens. A life which may have seemed short of just one or two things – always one or two things – is suddenly overflowing with riches. We may own fewer items, perhaps, but we learn to be grateful for them; and we become linked into a new community by engaging in the difficult and countercultural practice of sharing. Gratitude and friendship: what more could we ask? The truth of the matter is indeed counterintuitive: 'enough' is the real pathway to abundance.

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