I do love this season. It woos me with its fireplaces, family dinners, and sugar cookies. I approve of listening to December in September, of Christmas shopping (“I thought of you when I saw this”) all year round, of imagining the best place for a Christmas tree in every home you enter.
Beneath layers of ingested cheesecakes, however, there lives a deep, abiding, unshakable sense of guilt – because I have enough, and so does everyone on my list, and I still went shopping.
I’m not sure of the source. It might be that I’m just an undereducated philosopher, or a Christian, or a helper by nature. Maybe it’s my half-Mennonite upbringing, the training that traveling the extra mile for other people ought to be the norm. It might be the diet of social justice articles and books I’ve more or less crammed into myself since high school – the doing of Mother Teresa or Gandhi, Shane Claiborne, Gladys Aylward, or anyone else who gave in her poverty and talked about it.
No matter where it was born, this challenge accompanies every purchase I make in my adult life (excepting maybe multi vitamins and cold medicine):
“Is this the best use of my money?”
A simple question of stewardship.
But I exaggerate. My conscience is never that nice.
Usually, I’m savoring the steam of a mocha latte, closing my eyes and breathing in the chocolate, thanking God for making caffeine, for quiet, for conversations with grownups on hard days with two year olds. And then it hits me. My conscience shoots straight, and mean. “I hope that mocha was worth NOT feeding starving children.”
Then it’s over. I can’t enjoy it anymore. I repent of being weary of my job; I repent of naps and coffee and wanting a raise. I want to demand a refund, run to my car and cry for the homeless Mexican families I knew and loved and have forgotten.
I have chosen good things over better things and I’m a failure of a person.
Is this normal? I don’t know.
At some point in high school I decided I was going abroad. I studied French because the poorest countries in the world speak some cousin of the language. I cried over reports of education and exploitation, plotting the places on the map where I would go first. Maybe this was a naïve white savior complex, but I thought I was serious. With interests in photography and English, I would pursue photojournalism in third world countries. I would eat bugs. I would dangle from helicopters, dispensing hope and protein bars. I would capture their dire need in riveting photographs and send them back to the States with a message that convinced you to eschew normal Christmas and buy a cow for my neighbor two huts down.
This sanctified wanderlust helped me fall in love with a crazy person, who eschewed shoes and normalcy and was currently growing a goatee and living in Venezuela. He wrote poetry and thought he could live in another country. It was love after the first six hundred e-mails.
But the first year of my relationship with my now-husband was still rife with conversations about leaving or not. We were both in college, both studying foreign languages — different ones, both growing at rapid rates, mostly but not always in the same direction.
“I’m going abroad!” “I’ve decided I’m not supposed to go abroad.” “How will you know if you don’t go!” “I did go. I didn’t like it.” “You unspiritual brute! Look at you with your NFL and your potato chips and your college degree programs.” “Maybe I want a dog and garbage disposal and a picket fence.” “No garbage disposal in the Amazon!”
In the end, we both went abroad, and we both came home, and we both grudgingly accepted the apparent redirection from world-saving to normal western life. We tried to make ourselves believe that we could save the world from our apartment . . . even though we had plumbing.
We would sanctify our normal western life by giving our last pennies to charity and never plugging in our TV. Take that.
But actually, we have no idea what we’re doing. My husband has shaved his goatee. He buys me truffles. We have a dog. I live with a perpetual sense of guilt for being warm and safe and comfortable.
I’ve stopped broadcasting things like this, because I’ve found that people generally belong in two camps. In camp one, people are awesome. They’re the best hippies, they own no coats; they wear dreads and spend spring break living on the street with people who are honestly their friends. They devastate me with their convictions, and they disappear. They’re off in a foreign country eating roots and saving the world.
Camp two, I share my heart and crickets chirp. They stare blankly at me, and I scramble for the right words, to rewind the radical parts of what I said I want for my life. Well, I don’t mean that it’s wrong to have a mortgage and a television. I don’t actually want to know what it’s like to be cold and hungry. It’s probably not wrong for us to have lunch on Thursday instead of distributing mittens.
Maybe this is more normal than I think, or should be. Maybe we’re all like this. Where I fret about homeless children, somebody else will wonder about our responsibility to the disabled, the elderly, the environment, the incarcerated innocents, the state of our food, the state of education, the state of our youth.
Maybe it’s all part of a human need to reject easy answers – at least to put them on trial, test our ways of life, see if they stand up to the values we say we have.
In the meantime, I’m still conflicted and cranky. I’m in front of a fire with pumpkin cheesecake, whipped cream, and a heart of angst. I want world peace for Christmas. And if I can’t have that, I want books about world peace.
Or a cow. Maybe I’ll buy a cow.
Gandhi said we could shake the world gently. I would like to know how.