January 2011

I just finished doing our 2010 taxes and was quite pleasantly surprised at the outcome.  It seems that starting the year in one tax bracket and ending in a lower one is pretty good for your refund.

As I looked at the number at the top of the screen I went from relief, to excitement, to… wait for it… disappointment and frustration.  My first thought was to wonder if I could donate it back to the national deficit.  Then I thought of replenishing our own savings.  The more I got used to the idea of our tax refund, the more ideas I had for its use.  Important ideas.  Things that would make me really happy – a trip with old roommates, a deposit on a safer apartment with thicker walls, finally going home for Christmas this year.  The list goes on.  It’s amazing what I can decide I need to purchase when I have the option to do so.

Call me Patch Adams, but I think the cure for my insatiable desire for more is to stop imagining what a resource can do for me, and start imagining what it can do for someone else.  If our friend Isaac were to receive our tax refund, it could provide him with food, water, medical care, and education for well over five years.  Someone pretty credible once wrote to a group of people similar to myself, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.”  Wow.

It is so much more demanding to imagine the good I can do for someone else than to imagine the goods I can acquire for myself – likely because one involves research, imagination, and vulnerability, and the other simply a television remote.  But what an amazing picture – embracing love, dependence, and gratitude rather than striving.  Circles rather than triangles.

Lake Victoria in Uganda, where Isaac lives


In our daily Frederick Buechner yesterday, we read about the time when he received his first book deal, only to immediately hear about a classmate’s dissimilar misfortune.  And as he walked away, his joy could not fully withstand the grief of his friend.  “There can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all,” he wrote.

And isn’t that the way it is with everything in our quite broken world?  One man’s fortune is another man’s burden.  The same hill means one man’s climb and another’s coasting descent.

Sometimes in the effort to encourage the pursuit of simplicity, proponents point to the joys of letting go of consumer values, to the shame of living for cheap, monetary thrills, to the true cost of our endless appetites.  I believe in that joy, and in that shame, but I forget sometimes, that while there can be great reward for making sacrificial changes, those changes very often feel like loss.  Change is never without a feeling of loss, even happy change.  A wedding is a great beginning, full of hope and the promise of a timeless friendship, but it is also an end.  Isn’t it a common story for a best friend to spend much of the wedding grieving over the forever-changed nature of their friendship?  Or a child is born and amidst the parents’ joy, they are quickly adjusting to the sudden demands of their new charge, likely without the indulgence of previous comforts like sleeping in or a simple cup of coffee.  When we leave one thing behind in order to gain something better, moving on into joy is part of the story, but the other part is loss.

Whether it’s moving across the country, signing a book deal, or giving up Netflix (I know… it’s a doozy), we must give ourselves the freedom to grieve the fear or loss we feel.  Because regardless of how good the change may be, the pain it brings along the way is real.  I love Eric Peters’ song that I posted for the new year.  “So much to be thankful, so much to be forgotten… gonna cry when I need it, smile when I need it, laugh when I need it.  Good-bye denial, good-bye.  Good-bye.”

Pursuing a more simple, focused life is a common response to the rampant consumerism and disposability of our time, and I believe an appropriate one.  And when I am visited by the longing for what I have left behind, I must see it, name it, and then remember that I have not so much given up what I had gained as begun to hope for something different.

To pursue the life-giving habits that depend less on accumulation, and more on expression, enrichment, service, is for many of us a hoping for the day when there is joy without sadness, for us all.