17 December 2007


One day while I was driving in Rwanda with U., the office coordinator, I noticed an old man walking along the road. I was 23, swinging this Land Cruiser Prado around the tight turns of the mountains, and he was 75 or 80, walking slowly up a mountain, leaning on a cane. “It seems unfair to me,” I said to U., “that I am young and have a car, and he is old and has to walk.”

U. looked at me oddly. “Everyone can’t have a car,” he said.

(I tell that story a lot, because he is right. We can’t all have a car. It would destroy the world. If I have one, someone else can’t, either in this generation or the next. Can you imagine six or eight billion cars depleting the ozone layer?)

After posting about my obscenely expensive jeans, I got an email from an internet friend who is currently in Liberia, regarding obscenely expensive jeans, which she also likes. It got me started thinking about the tension between spending money on the things that make us happy and declining to spend money because of the poverty in the rest of the world. I’m pretty chill on that, at this point, and I think my guilt about spending the money on the jeans was more because I thought I should feel guilty than because I actually do.

Like many people, I went through a stage in college in which I was very upset about the poverty in the world and the fact that most of us aren’t really doing anything about it. I cried when my parents built a new house in a middle-class suburb and we had to move out of the ‘hood. I had just come back from a semester studying development in Honduras and it all seemed so excessive to me. One bedroom in this house is bigger than many houses in Africa or Latin America. I was upset that we were not even trying to live simply. What resources would be left, I wondered, for the rest of the world, if we all lived in houses with two or three car garages (full of cars)?

I’ve mellowed, since. Well. A bit. I would still choose, if it were up to me, an older building over a newly-constructed one, because I don’t think we need all these new buildings that are killing forests all over the world (although if you start thinking about energy efficiency, those old buildings are pretty bad, and then everything gets far too complicated). I am still going to try to get by without a car in my new city as long as I can. I still recycle obsessively. I still prefer the lack of purchasing I do when I live in Africa to the buying and hoarding I do here in the U.S.

I haven’t stopped believing that the way we live affects the rest of the world. I’ve just stopped beating myself up when I don’t do such a good job of it.

And, too, I’ve learned something else, about myself. There are many things that I will not spend money on, even if everyone else has them. It is unlikely, for example, that I will buy a television in my new apartment. I never did get that sleeping bag that I wanted in college. I go to the library when I hear about a new book that I’d like to read but won’t need to keep and reread for the rest of my life. I’m still holding off on buying snow and rain boots (my hiking boots from Rwanda days have been doubling as snow boots for about four winters now, with the result of lots of freezing feet). There are many things that I can do without, and I do.

There are also things that I will spend money on, and those tend to be the things that I need to stay sane. I will spend money on comfortable, warm, long-lasting clothes that I will use frequently. I will spend money on quality tea and candles. I will spend money on decorative items to make my surroundings bearable. I will spend money on good running shoes and good pens (preferably refillable ones).

To sum it up, what I’ve learned in the last seven years is just to be a bit easier on myself: to wait a few more days before spending that money, because maybe it is more needed somewhere else, but also to take care of myself. Or even simpler: it isn’t a betrayal of my ideals to take care of myself, when I need it.

(I’m tempted to add a caveat: that my taking care of myself can and does get out of hand sometimes. I am aware of that and I try to curb it. Not everyone in the world can afford to take care of themselves, to treat themselves once in a while, and I am very aware that my ability to do so is a luxury. It is a luxury that every person should have, but not everyone does. Okay, clearly I have now added the caveat.)

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