That passage from Scripture is a foundational part of my life with my two girls. I’ll admit, it wasn’t always this way.
After my divorce, I moved from a moderate suburban home to an urban apartment and was forced to downsize. At first, I panicked. Who would I be without a two-car garage? How would my kids exist without a giant trampoline next to their pool in the backyard? What kind of mother doesn’t have a designated playroom for her kids? But, it took less than 24 hours for me to realize that this downsizing was the most healing endeavor in which I’d engaged since my husband high-tailed it out of state and out of our lives.
So, I purged again. And again. And again. I am now an enthusiastic purger of things.
I purge about three times a year. I have emptied closets. I have thrown out everything from nick-knacks to my entire bedroom set. Yes, you read that right. I sleep on a mattress on the floor. Why? Because it is more comfortable. Because I chose my own comfort over my concern for the expectations of others. After seeing me do it, my girls decided to ditch their bunk beds. I swapped my “grown up art” for a Wolverine decal that overlooks our dining room table. Oh my, goodness! Our lives are better for it! Together, we have eliminated all of our extra furniture and have found our sparsely decorated space to ooze the peace we once thought we could purchase.
Less stuff means fewer things to worry about when we could be investing energy into each other. Less space means less cleaning and more time to engage the world around us. Less focus on empty vessels means more energy to put into refilling the most important vessels – our souls.
We don’t have much stuff, but we have a great life. For the most part.
You see, it is impossible for inoculate our little den of peace from the rest of the world. And when you live a bit differently than society tells you that you should live, there is a need to be vigilant about not giving into the tension between true, lasting happiness and the momentary rush of social acceptance.
I have experienced this tension first hand since moving my kids to a better school (read: school in a wealthier neighborhood). Please don’t get me wrong, I would not move my kids back to a floundering school to avoid this tension. My kids are flourishing socially and academically, and I am thankful every day that they are where they are, loving to learn. But, the tension is there.
I first noticed it in the after school programs. There are myriad “enrichment” programs (from robotics to tumbling), for a fee. So, there is the constant pressure to drop money into programs to help your children gain that extra edge.
I’ll admit, I fell for it the first time. My older daughter really wanted to cheer. I wanted so badly to tell her no. You want me to pay for 8 weeks of chant-learning and smile practicing? You clearly don’t know your mother at all, I thought. But, I caved. I asked for a payment plan and committed myself to paying for the 8 week program. Then came the kicker…the kids were given the “option” to buy a uniform for another couple hundred dollars. I could probably stretch my budget to make it happen, but I didn’t want to. This wasn’t a competitive cheer team; this was an after school program. Why would I spend my money that way? And I was honest with my daughter about it. No biggie, I thought, clearly some other parents, no matter their economic status, would make the calculation that these uniforms were not worth the investment.
I was wrong. My daughter was the ONLY one without a uniform. Gulp.
Still no biggie, I thought. My girl is smart enough to recognize that standing out is not a bad thing and that joy does not come from conformity or an outfit; as well as reason through the economics of it. So, I talked to my daughter and I was right, everything was fine. Whew!
Unfortunately, I was not the only person in her ear. Later the same day, she came home and told me that she would be borrowing a uniform since everyone else had one. “What?” I questioned, “We were fine being different. We were going to put you in something fun and unique, and not worry about the expected ‘costume.’” “I know, Mom,” she said, “But everyone else has one.” Ugh.
With that one sentence, I saw three years of re-framing and intrapersonal focus drip out of her little head and slip through my fingers. Suddenly, it was more important to be like everyone else, to have what they have, than to make decisions that made sense for our lives. I was sad and angry. I wanted to call the coach and yell at her, but I didn’t. I knew that this woman was just trying to make my kid feel better and that, for so many of us, we fall prey to the lie that fitting into a crowd feels better (and is easier) than taking the time to find what makes us truly unique, and truly happy. So, I lost that battle.
I tried not to overreact or map too many of my own feelings onto her situation, but it was a struggle. It was a small struggle in a war that I imagine I will be waging for years to come. It is a struggle for happiness, the kind you cannot buy, the kind that only comes from being at peace with yourself, with your situation on Earth, and with your relationship with God. For me, it has been easy, because I have already lived a life filled with unnecessary things, and in that thing-filled life, I was miserable. I know that happiness is not material and that freedom does not come from burying ourselves in things.
But I worry about this struggle with my girls. Frankly, I have seen too many young people suffer from the emptiness that comes from living a life full of things. I work at an institution populated by some of the wealthiest young people I’ve ever encountered. That same institution also boasts alarmingly high rates of “feelings of loneliness.” I have spent a lot of time with young adults who are searching for meaning, addicted to trying to buy it, and trapped in a cycle of superficial gratification that makes them miserable. I don’t want this for my kids. I want my kids to be fulfilled by their Creator, by their ability to recognize their uniqueness, and by their relationships.
I am vigilant in prayer about this issue. I honestly pray that there is never an Earthly thing to which my girls tie emotion. I pray, constantly, that their emotions are only tied to the people they love and who love them, their appreciation for experiences; and gratitude for life, grace, and salvation. Because, as Jesus warned the greedy man: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." ~ Luke 12:15