THERE is something magical about this turning of the calendar page, when the warm golden glow of December’s nostalgia makes way for the fresh white canvas of January. It is a time to reflect on life and your place in it.
Often, we use the blank slate of a new year to make new promises to ourselves. We vow to make our waistlines smaller and our generosity bigger, to resurrect our virtues, and cast away the vices. The air is pregnant with promise — that is, until most of us crumble into a heap of miserable failure a few weeks later.
I’m only half-kidding. Statistically speaking, just eight per cent of us manage to keep our resolutions for the full 12 months. Still, when 1 January rolls around each year, we commit ourselves to changing something about ourselves. It’s a curious quest. Given the dismal numbers, you may be wondering why we do this, year after year. What do we gain from this cycle of committing to a goal and failing, and what is it that we are truly seeking in the first place?
A COUPLE of years ago, our church’s discussion group was studying a book, The Power of Enough, by Lynn A. Miller. As my wife and I lay in bed one Saturday night, cramming for the next day’s class, she turned her gaze towards me and simply asked: “What if we didn’t buy anything for a year?”
I pretended not to hear, but she kept talking anyway.
“I think we need to do something drastic, to get back in touch with what’s important.”
She reminisced about the year we spent serving as missionaries in Guatemala, and the deep sense of connection we felt — not only a connection with God’s calling, but a connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We lived with a Mayan family in a tiny adobe house. We earned just $230 per month. Yet we had more than we needed.
The experience was so meaningful for us that it spawned a family mission statement: “To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to create a world without need.”
And this mission statement, born of simplicity and service, was now emblazoned on a $500 custom-made piece of artwork in our home. That 1 January, therefore, began what we now call our “Year Without a Purchase”.
OUR challenge was not about saving money. Instead, it was a quest to live with intention, and reconnect with the important things in life; to place a greater focus on relationships, and decrease our emphasis on “stuff”.
The rules were simple:
1. We could buy stuff that can be used up within a year (food and hygiene products were OK).
2. We could fix stuff that broke, unless a suitable replacement was available
3. Gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experiences”.
We chose not to tell our kids about our little experiment. They were five and seven at the time, and we thought they could be our litmus test to see if we could live up to Jesus’s prayer in John 17, to live “in” the world but not “of” the world. If we could make it through the year without them noticing, we would consider it a success.
Our friends, on the other hand, thought we were nuts.
On the surface, we agreed that our challenge sounded absurd — but not for the same reasons as they did. The truth is, 80 per cent of the world’s people live on less than $10 per day; our New Year resolution is a daily reality for the majority of the population. It is likely that any family struggling to make ends meet would find it laughable, or even insulting, that some suburban middle-class family was “experimenting” with their reality.
Even though we have never been shopaholics, we did occasionally pop into a store and buy a new cushion for our couch, a small gift for a friend, or a pair of shoes to update our wardrobe. So this new way of living would require a shift in mindset for us, and we hoped that this shift would be a constant reminder of how others in God’s Kingdom go about their everyday lives. Heck, it might even lead to more compassionate hearts.
THE challenge was hard at first: like a smoker quitting cigarettes. In fact, during the second month, I happened to step on a scale, and found that I had gained seven pounds. Apparently, any time I felt the urge to buy something, I ate something instead. I was taking the “food loophole” to new extremes.
But it was not long before we began to develop new habits. I started exercising. We unsubscribed to coupon lists. We limited exposure to media. We started to treat stores like ex-girlfriends, only driving by to see if they were still there, but never making direct eye contact. For 12 months, we did these things.
And we were failures.
According to our rules, we purchased three non-approved items during the year. We bought my son a new pair of shoes, even though he had another pair that would work. We bought my daughter a pair of swim fins when she remembered how we had promised that she could have them the previous year. And we bought a vacuum cleaner instead of borrowing one, when ours was broken beyond repair.
So, then, back to our original question: what did we gain from this process of committing ourselves to a goal and failing, and what were we truly seeking?
TAKING a break from shopping gave us the space to think about what and why we purchase. Sadly, I determined that many of the things I desired, like new phones or new clothes, were not things that would make my life easier or more meaningful. Instead, deep down, I believed that they would make my life more enviable — effectively separating me from those I professed to love.
I also found myself wanting to purchase things for my children. I would ask, fearfully, “What might happen if they don’t have this thing? Will other kids make fun of them? Will they think I love them less? Will they feel left out?” For some reason, I thought that purchases could bring them joy. I thought that purchases could give them a sense of belonging. I thought that purchases could be God for them.
That is way too much pressure to put on a purchase.
We also learned the value of community. We put more of our time, money, and energy toward shared experiences. Conversations with friends got deeper. Time with family became more meaningful. When things were broken, such as backpacks and toasters, our friends would find they had extra, and would give to us from their abundance. And, even though it was not a goal of ours, we did save money throughout the year — enough to add to our retirement nest-egg, and donate twice as much to charity as we had in previous years.
To this day, we are more apt to ask: “What function will this thing bring to my life?” We also continue to place a value on time together as a family, and focus on gifts of experiences.
But our biggest learning was this: before our challenge, we believed that purchases might somehow increase our happiness. But they didn’t. So we changed our behaviour, thinking that avoiding purchases would somehow bring happiness. And we were wrong on both counts.
As human beings, we are constantly setting expectations for ourselves to become better people. This goes far beyond New Year resolutions to exercise more, or spend less time on the internet. We dream of what we might be when we grow up. We focus on career goals and financial success. We chase images of parental perfection and harmonious relationships. We desire to build legacies that live long after we are gone.
And, inevitably, in the pursuit of all of these goals, we will experience setbacks. The lost job. The irreparable relationship. The missed opportunity. The broken dream.
In these times, it is easy to feel that we don’t measure up. It is easy to feel worthless. But these are the times when we need to recognise that, in our single-minded pursuit of our goal, we have all been searching for something we never lost.
The love of God.
It is planted deep inside each one of us. The seed of our soul, where true joy is found. It is always there. Surrounding us in success and failure. Wrapping us in acceptance. Whispering that “better” is an illusion.
It is a love that fills us with hope. And peace. And grace. Something no accolade or achievement can provide.
So, whatever challenges you pose for yourself in this new year, may you always feel this love of God, as an ever-present reminder that you were created in his image.
Failing and flawed.
Wonderful and worthy.
Scott Dannemiller is an author, speaker, worship leader, and former missionary with the Presbyterian Church (USA). He blogs at “The Accidental Missionary”, and is President of LifeWork Associates, a leadership development consulting firm. His book The Year Without a Purchase: One family’s quest to stop shopping and start connecting is published by John Knox Press at £10 (Church Times Bookshop, £9 use code CT111).