The recent rush of Christmas shopping has left me wondering how much is too much? It also reminded me of a story from Tolstoy that I read as a young boy. Yes, I was the nerdy kid reading War and Peace at the video arcade. But that’s not the point.
Tolstoy told the tragic tale of Pahom in the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” Pahom discovered a place where he could have all the land he wanted — if only he could walk around it all in one day. “As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours,” he was told. And so he set his heart on getting the biggest piece of land he could with one significant condition:
Pahom was surprised.
“But in a day you can get round a large tract of land,” he said.
The Chief laughed.
“It will all be yours!” said he. “But there is one condition: If you don’t return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost.”
“But how am I to mark the way that I have gone?”
“Why, we shall go to any spot you like, and stay there. You must start from that spot and make your round, taking a spade with you. Wherever you think necessary, make a mark. At every turning, dig a hole and pile up the turf; then afterwards we will go round with a plough from hole to hole. You may make as large a circuit as you please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from. All the land you cover will be yours.”
After spending a grueling day grasping for just a little bit more land at every turn, Pahom finally finished his brutal journey and flopped at the feet of the local chief.
“Ah, what a fine fellow!” exclaimed the Chief. “He has gained much land!”
Pahom‘s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!
The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.
His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.
Just because we can do a lot of Christmas shopping, does that mean that we should? And how much is too much? How much Christmas shopping do we truly need?
Record Shopping vs. Record Food Stamps
How many plastic presents does one country need, especially in light of the fact that more than 46 million Americans are on food stamps these days. In today’s FaithWalkers Daily, I noted the jarring disparity between record retail sales for Black Friday, record Cyber Monday sales, and record movie box office receipts last weekend on the one hand and record food stamps doled out on the other.
It’s stats like this that give capitalism a bad name. Of course, food stamps and such government programs are more evidence of socialist creep than of capitalism generously applied, but the problem of greed remains. And always will.
Lessons in Capitalism from George Bailey?
In one of my favorite classic holiday flicks It’s A Wonderful Life (which ironically wasn’t even released as a holiday film), we see the joys and perils of a capitalistic system on display. The conniving and greedy Potter represents capitalistic greed run amok without concern for others. It’s that kind of amoral approach that powered the baby-boomers but has turned off so many of the millenial generation to the wisdom of capitalism.
George Bailey represents a more generous, people-first approach to the same system. That’s not to say the film disdains capitalism rightly applied. Recall that it was the risk-taking entrepreneur Sam Wainwrigth who came through with the cash advance to seal George’s salvation. (Imagine what George could have done for Bedford Falls had he invested in plastics when he had the chance.)
The free market gives people the freedom to act responsibly, but not the moral compass or courage to do so. That’s where our faith, our moral code, if you will, becomes critical to the continued functioning of a free society. It is in our exercising restraint that we pay an oft-overlooked price to preserve our freedom. It always comes back to the individual to choose according to his or her conscience, a conscience that in the US is becoming increasingly free of its faith-based moorings.
I’m not calling for a guilt spree in place of the spending binge. Just some moderation. A return to focus on what we truly need instead of what we want. I fail to see how we can have 46 million Americans who “need” food stamps while nearly every single adult American went shopping one way or another over Thanksgiving weekend. (I confess I went to the grocery store for a routine purchase. But my wife didn’t. So there’s at least one abstaining.)
A Different Approach to Christmas
Maybe it’s our own faith journey this year that has shifted my attention this Christmas. There’s no question I’ve got plenty to be thankful for. Maybe this Christmas we should all consider taking a more responsible approach.
I don’t doubt for a moment that a lot of people are struggling to make ends meet here in the US. They should feel no shame in simply celebrating the needs that God has supplied. Trust me. It will do most children here great good to get their focus off the toy catalog and onto being grateful for God’s simple gifts of family, food, and shelter.
Still others are taking a more active approach to being generous to avoid the Biblical conseqences of not doing so. Generous Tuesday is one such grass-roots movement to push back against the excess of holiday shopping. Watch the video and explore more here via Mary DeMuth:
The good people of faith at RethinkChurch.org call for us to spend less and give more. Not a bad idea, if I may say so, especially when we consider that as a nation, we’re flat broke and careening full speed ahead toward a whole series of fiscal cliffs.
Could we be spending ourselves into oblivion as we chase a whole lot of stuff we don’t really need? And are government programs helping to fund our greed to do so?
Are you rethinking Christmas shopping this year? Share your own thoughts on how much Christmas shopping is too much with a comment below.