I have a confession to make: I like shopping–even grocery shopping (if I can do it without kids). I enjoy browsing through merchandise displays; I get a real rush from finding a great deal. This hasn’t always been true of me—as a kid I remember being dragged reluctantly to clothing stores. Back then, I only really enjoyed shopping for books. Somehow this all changed when I was in graduate school (I’m not sure why, but I suspect it may have been because shopping was a nice outlet after all that studying.) But I’ve begun to suspect, recently, that my enjoyment is becoming a habit; that sometimes I buy things not because I need them but because of the sheer thrill of consuming.
Because of this realization, our recent 5th Sunday lesson—a lesson on provident living—seemed particularly timely to me. The lesson was organized around Elder Faust’s 1986 talk, “The Responsibility for Welfare Rests with Me and My Family.” In this talk, he offers the following five tips on living providently:
1. Practice thrift and frugality
2. Be independent
3. Be industrious
4. Be self-reliant
5. Have a year’s supply of food and clothes stored
However, as the lesson unfolded, I found myself reflecting not simply on the value of provident living, but reflecting that this principle (like so many in the gospel) is lived best when it’s lived in moderation and balance; I realized how easy it could be for any one of these points to be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Please let me be clear at the outset: I’m not trying to denigrate being self-sufficient or living frugally—I think these are important principles with both spiritual and practical implications. I’m simply trying to better understand how to apply this principle in my own life.
Thrift and frugality are of course important, both to avoid debt and to avoid getting too caught-up in consumerism. At the same time, I see a danger in extreme thriftiness that threatens the kind of creative culture the church also advocates. If we only buy things we need for physical survival, how do we justify supporting community culture? Are books, art, music and film luxuries or necessities? Perhaps more contentious–is a family vacation really a “necessity”? Beyond philosophical considerations of cultural support, there’s also the practical issue that if everyone stopped buying things that weren’t strictly necessary, our national economy would suffer considerably more than it currently is. In thinking about this, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how to balance thrift against consumption, or an answer that applies to everyone. However, in a recent (2009) conference address, Elder Hales offered an insightful question that helps me find balance: “Whenever we want to experience or possess something that will impact us and our resources, we may want to ask ourselves, ‘Is the benefit temporary, or will it have eternal value and significance?’” Thus, while a family vacation may not be necessary for our physical survival, it can be money well spent if it brings us together as a family. This even means that sometimes, it’s okay to go shopping just for pleasure—for my mom and me, shopping means quality one-on-one time that we might not otherwise get
Independence and self-reliance, excellent virtues that they are, can also be taken to extreme. In the course of the lesson, one of the ward members shared a story about Brigham Young shortly after the saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. He chastised members because, in their efforts to exercise independence, they forgot that they were a community. For instance, one man’s crops suffered, because he refused to hire another man (newly arrived in the valley and in need of money) to build a fence for his livestock because that was work that he himself could do. To me, this story highlights the fine balance between community and individuality—if we rely too much on each other, we allow community to smother independence. But if we’re too independent, we don’t rely on each other enough. While salvation is admittedly an individual practice, one of the things I value most about the church is the strong sense of community—and a sense that we become saved in part in the process of helping one another draw closer to Christ. Sometimes, the most powerful service we can render is to let others serve us.
Even industry can be taken too far: we can become so busy that we forget to take time for quiet contemplation. Elder Maxwell once wrote a lovely piece called “Wisdom and Order,” in which he pointed out that even the Savior needed to take time out periodically.
None of these issues are particularly new ones. In the late nineteenth century, Eliza R. Snow and other church leaders advocated “retrenchment”—a movement towards self-reliance and “retrenching” from consuming the world’s goods (a move that was partly motivated by the fear that the members of the Church would be seduced by worldly culture if they relied too much on the world’s goods). In an 1874 address “To the Young Sisters in Provo” (published in the April 1874 Woman’s Exponent), Snow lauded the Retrenchment Society, “in which many earnest women are working in union for mutual improvement to the benefit of Zion, not only retrenching table extravagance, and what is ludicrous and disgusting in the fashion of dress, but, also retrenching ignorance, the spirit of the world, and everything else that is opposed to noble womanhood, and progress in the path to perfection.” While I am by no means perfect myself—or an expert in provident living—this is the kind of movement I can get behind: one that simultaneously encourages material restraint and spiritual growth.
The real question I want to raise is one of balance: How do we practice thrift without becoming cheap or miserly? How do we seek after industry without becoming so busy we lose sight of the value of quiet? How can we practice self-sufficiency that balances individual needs with communal ones? Mostly, how do we practice this principle as a physical and spiritual principle, one that ideally makes us more like Christ?