Posted by: dacalu | 22 October 2012

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

There’s a trope in my generation.  It’s probably made it into general culture at this point.  Someone does something that has – often unintended – negative consequences.  The toddler drools all over his mother’s dress.  The child plays frisbee inside the house, breaking an antique.  And someone says “This is why we can’t have nice things.”  It ranges in meaning from scapegoating to resigned acceptance.  After all, having kids is better than having antiques, right?  There is also a sense of humor associated.  The statement becomes funny (and interesting) when it makes you reflect on your value system.  So I want you to know from the outset that I recognize the complexities of the situation.

I want to talk about specifically why WE can’t have nice things.  It turns out, no matter what your economic system, there are a fixed amount of goods in the world (at any given time).  There’s only so much stuff.  There’s only so much time and energy and intention.  Each of us and all of us have to do the hard work of deciding what we fund and what we don’t.  Resources can belong to us or they can belong to me, but they can’t belong to both.

Think about that for a moment.  Some things are owned collectively and some individually, but they all fall into one category or another.  The more things you put in column A, the fewer there are left for column B or vice versa.  This has to do with the concept that ownership means the right to use something as well as the right to destroy it or prevent others from using it.

I own it or WE own it.

Which brings us to the question of who WE are.  It turns out there are many groups to which we belong and who hold common property – families, schools, towns, counties, states, countries, churches (from parishes to denominations), corporations, unions.  In every case, we have to make the choice of how much to contribute to the common purse and how much to keep for our own.

I use money as a place holder for value here.  It’s true that we give of our time and talents.  We contribute socially, intellectually, actively, and financially.  Still we live in a monetary age, where we express wealth most succinctly and comfortably in terms of dollars and cents (pounds and pence, …).  While I will try to emphasize all of these aspects, I’ll talk chiefly about money.  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

In our world (the modern US, or UK, …) groups are all at least partially voluntary and contain some aspect of collective decision making.  WE decide how much WE contribute and WE decide how money gets spent from the common purse.  Sometimes, as is the case with taxes, WE decide what the penalty for not participating will be.  Sometimes the choice is made on a case by case basis (year by year, payment by payment) and sometimes the choice is made only rarely, though the consequences play out for a long time – even generations.

This is what community means.  We all contribute and we all decide.  Christians have called this a virtue (as have Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists).  There is a spiritual discipline involved in belonging to something greater, a freedom and sense of purpose that comes from being part of a greater whole.  Yes, a freedom, because you (plural) can do more, reach more, know more than you (singular).  Groups have more power than individuals.

WE can only have nice things, when I surrender them.  It’s as simple as that.  There is a movement alive and well in the United States to convince people that the only good things are things they own – or at least unambiguously control.  In the Middle Ages this would have been called pride.  Later, egoism or selfishness or anti-social behavior.  Whatever you call it, it deprives US of things we can only have when we work together.

Modern evangelists of greed invoke libertarianism and individualism.  Those have their place, but only so far.  There is a spectrum that runs from despotic communism to apathetic selfishness.  At the far left, most people cannot express their needs so they cannot be met.  At the far right no-one can be found to help you fulfill your needs.  Unless you are blessed by chance to have everything already – you will suffer.  At both ends, a few people’s needs dictate the happiness of all.  There must be a green zone in the middle.  Over the next few posts I want to explore where the green zone ends and we become bad people and bad groups.  As a citizen of the US, I think we’re 20-30 years too far on the side of greed.  As a Christian, I think we’re at least 100 years too far into the sin of pride.

We cannot simply return to the past.  People then were fighting their own battles.  For many of them, I’m deeply glad we won.  I think the struggle for individual rights has been a noble and productive one.  That said, each age has it’s own battles and this, I believe is ours.  We must learn to live beyond our selves.  We must return to community.



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