Black Friday came and went recently. Everywhere I turned, there was a strong, cultural message: Spend more money. Now with a kid around the house, it is even more pressure packed. We are bombarded with messages about what we should buy him: toys, electronics, stuff, stuff, stuff. While Black Friday had a finite, rush-out-the-door-right-now-and-stand-in-line-for-this-amazing-deal kind of messaging, let’s be honest: the whole month of December will be full of the same pressures. Spend more, spend more, spend more. Now spending money isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, spending money makes the economy go ‘round, right?). But what happens when spending money becomes habitual at this time of year, possibly even addictive? What happens when 99% of the “stuff” we buy ends up in a landfill within a few years? What happens when spending money becomes an integral aspect of a major religious holiday like Christmas? Maybe what is happening to us is this: emptiness, environmental destruction, and meaninglessness. Sound extreme? Take time to be attentive to those around you this holiday season and maybe you’ll notice it too: People feeling stressed, people in a rush, amounts of trash skyrocketing, and oftentimes little recognition of the reason for the season, which really should be an anticipation and celebration of an incarnate God within and amongst all of us.
So why should the season of Advent, the liturgical season of great hope for Christians, become so empty? So frivolous? So antithetical to the spirit of love, generosity, and divinity?
I notice frequently that everything in life is a choice. Even when dealt difficult cards, we still have the choice to control how we respond to those difficulties. Ever heard the phrase: “Life is 10% about what happens to us and 90% about how we respond”? More than we realize in life is under our control and dependent on the daily choices we face. So this Advent, I say we take back control of this season. It’s a matter of choice. This Advent, my wife and I pledge to make the following choices. Maybe you’ll join us:
- Spend less money on “stuff” that will eventually end up in a landfill. There are better ways to show people that we love them. And when we do spend, we’ll spend our money at local, small businesses that practice just business standards like paying employees fair wages and we’ll buy only high quality items that are truly “needed.”
- Spend less money on “stuff” and instead spend money carefully on life-giving “experiences” for others like the arts, spiritual retreats, concerts, family adventures, etc.
- Spend less money on “stuff” and instead give handmade, homemade food or crafts. This one’s a favorite of ours because we still have people raving about the homemade applesauce we gave one Christmas. Funny: no one ever brings up the random “stuff” of years’ past, that… you guessed, it… probably currently resides in a landfill or in a box in the attic.
- Spend less money on “stuff” for the sake of matching the number or price of gifts that others buy us. So simple. What if we just said “stop!”? What if we all agreed to spend less money on Christmas and spend more time together instead?
Do you know what else? Money isn’t the only commodity we waste during this season. We spend time, attention, and energy too. Here are a handful of other pledges for very real choices we have at our fingertips:
- Spend less time “rushing around” and spend more time “taking our time.” And yes, this may mean saying “no” to some opportunities, engagements, parties, etc.
- Spend less attention reflecting on what we “want” and spend more attention reflecting in gratitude for the abundance we have and the tangible experience of God’s love through friends and family.
- Spend less energy “making things perfect” and spend more energy being present to each moment as it is, in all of its beautiful, raw imperfection. There’s divinity in every moment if we only stop trying to orchestrate perfection in life and instead pause to recognize and embrace the sacredness.
None of this is easy. Habits are hard to break. My kid will grow up as a little bit of an outsider because he won’t have the newest, coolest toy, and that will be hard on him and us. Living in contrast to a culture that preaches the opposite is difficult, even painstaking at times. But the real prices we pay for hectic, expensive, meaningless seasons of Advent and Christmas are more than we can afford. None of this is easy, but what would happen with a little bit of prayer, a little bit of communal action, a little bit of boldness, a little bit of willingness to try something new…
If we did this during Advent and Christmas this year, I’d bet that we would feel a fullness like never before. I’d bet that we would start to think about the ways we spend our money, time, attention, and energy throughout the rest of the year. I’d bet that our lives and relationships would be more simple, more whole, more loving, more connected, more meaningful. And wouldn’t that be glorious? Wouldn’t that truly be “God among us”?
Greg Carpinello is the Director of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith & Justice and a 2001 graduate of Xavier University. He is passionate about living a simple life and spreading the love that his newborn gives him daily.