THE LAST SIX months have been the most intense struggle with first-world problems I’ve ever waged in my life. Maybe it’s because I never took the time to wrestle with them before, or maybe it’s just Murphy’s Law in full force, but over the last 6 months of living on a modest stipend, I underwent the breakdown of two things that turned out to be crucial to the functioning of my life: my cell phone and my laptop. I think I get it now: electronics + liquid = game over. And also: things don’t last forever.
Adding to the drama, I’m still haunted by an earlier purchase I made somewhat on a whim:
I’d wanted to play a percussion instrument (besides piano) ever since 4th grade, when I looked longingly at the timpanis from my seat in the first violins section. With that rationale and a few hundred dollars in my bank account just waiting to be spent, I took the bus to a little music shop and walked out with a brand new drum swaying from my shoulders.
I decided to take my drum to the circle to make sure it was legit. I sat down beside a man who didn’t have a drum but did have dreads, so I decided he must have known what he was doing. I asked him to check out my new djembe; I was so proud of it. He played it for a few moments before turning to me: “May I?” He wanted to tune it. I watched in admiration as he tightened the cords on the drum, pausing periodically to fling his hair over his shoulders. I smiled smugly to myself for having the wit to go to the drum circle and meeting this djembe expert.
And then, just like that, the magic ended.
The drum he returned to me did not look like the one I had before. The drumhead was ripped. My djembe was no longer brand new and perfect. It was now torn and useless. Yet the enamored spirit in me could not be dejected, not yet. I entered that oh-so-familiar place of denial and amused myself with a dysfunctional drum for another 15 minutes or so.
I wouldn’t feel the weight of the incident until a week later, when I learned of the cost of the repair and realized that I’d been, in a word, screwed-over. Finally, after two months, the drum was fixed. I didn’t touch it for at least another week.
IT’S BEEN ALMOST 5 months since my djembe debacle, 4 months since my MacBook mishap and 3 months since my second cell phone snafu. I am ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until all of these things were fixed (paid for by my parents) that I felt fully functional again. Throughout these months, I heard the same question being asked of me over and over again: how do I measure the value of living? Am I free to flourish only when everything I own is in order? Do I dare to “live simply” only when the luxuries I deem necessities are working?
The insecurity I felt during those months and the way I let my worries rob me of joy – over technology, of all things! – have exposed an ugly truth: As much as I decry materialism and mass production, I still depend heavily upon the comforts and conveniences of a developed country – and I’m not just talking about smartphones and laptops. What about drinkable tap water, Trader Joe’s and personal space? These privileges are hard to let go of.
Deeper still is the desire for financial security. With each of my recent technological failures, I would think, “If only I had $1000 more, even $500…” It’s common to think that more money means less stress, because it’s often true; if it weren’t, why would we want income redistribution, fair wages and job creation? (I’m oversimplifying, of course.) Having the means to make ends meet allows a person to invest in other pursuits besides trying to make ends meet. But for me – single, fresh out of college and still dependent on my parents’ income – the question I faced was not how to provide for myself but rather how to secure myself.
Enjoyable and useful though they may be, material possessions will not last. They just won’t. It took hours to make that djembe and only one second to tear it. It took hundreds of parts to make that MacBook and only one cup of water to ruin it. When I die, I won’t be able to use or want to use any thing I own.
What will last are the intangibles: relationships, courage, the depth of character that forms when it’s rooted in hope. The intangibles not only sustain us in this life but also continue after us, in the lives we touch and the places we visit.
So what are we to do now, when we find ourselves at the crossroad between the economy of heaven and the economy of our world? For those of us in a position of privilege, I think a good place to start is gratitude. Give thanks for what we have. Give up what we think we need but is really just what we want. Share. And perhaps out of that gratitude will spring forth a steadfastness that endures no matter how many digits are in our bank account, no matter how many things we have to fix, no matter how may bills we have to pay, because it anchors itself in the Giver of all good things.