Those Joneses always showing off their new toys. How can we live a life of humble virtue and quiet selflessness when they come into work after the holidays with the brand new iPhone? How can we feel good about our low-key Christmas when our neighbour was on a cruise in the Caribbean? How can we, who consider ourselves to be pro-family, believe that children are a gift when having more than six means driving an Econoline van?
We can do it by examining our reactions to situations like this — and recognizing that others will likely react in a similar way. Armed with this knowledge, we need to change how we make our consumption choices. If we are always getting the newest gadget, we need to carefully consider if our choices breed jealousy in those around us, and if yes, modify our consumption. We need to make consumer choices that not only ignore “keeping up with the Joneses,” but also protect others from keeping up with us. We need to make the family our most prized possession. Saying “children are a blessing” is only valuable if we actually enjoy raising our kids day-to-day in a less-than-lavish style.
Can our example be more important than agitating lawmakers or attending rallies? It could be. No one likes being told what to do, but everyone can be swayed by joyful example. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines Roseto, Penn., a small town where heart disease in men under 65 was almost unheard of. Why? After analyzing the data, researchers concluded that there was a “particular egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.” This was not a centrally planned, socialist’s ideal – this was a community of people who looked out for each other and as a result improved the lives of everyone. Life was long and happy.
No one would describe Canada this way. Although it is not everything, social status plays loudly in our lives. We showcase success with material goods and services. The successful family can now take multiple vacations a year, drive a new car, and have a bathroom for every member of the house.
So what is to be done? What should the pro-family/pro-life person do? Should we passively accept that hyper-materialism is the way things are? Or should we live as an ascetic in the desert? Neither. Use your own life to show others how much or little materialism matters. Does a brand new kitchen produce envy in our friends, or does it create kinship over well-made food? Does our new car make people think of functional transportation, or does it make them want to drag race?
Even children can be used to display wealth in a time where “children are expensive.” If you can afford them, and all the attendant music lessons, karate, band trips, ballet camps, and annual winter vacations, you must be materially wealthy. “We couldn’t possibly afford another baby,” I heard a friend say after her second was born. The unsaid part was: “We can barely afford a three-star in Cuba every year. And our house is too small. Not to mention ski trips and language lessons.”
“Expensive children” is a bi-product of our have-it-all culture.
Ideally, if people are going to be jealous of the things I have, I want them to be jealous of things I value – my family life. I want to gently encourage people to embrace family life because they see that it is good. I want people to realize that choosing married life is a vocation – which includes our most important and life-long relationships – and should trump all other considerations including wealth and time-consuming employment.
Our happiness, our sadness, our trials and our successes are, to some degree, on display to the people around us. Humans are naturally competitive but we can harness this competitiveness. It’s known that people who have lots of divorced friends are more likely to divorce themselves; divorce is seen as a normal response to marital difficulties. What could be the influence of the average-income couple who lovingly welcome children?
We can encourage people to love families and children more if we lead by example. This is not meant to suggest that people in the pro-life/pro-family movement don’t love these things – far from it. It means that we need to conscientiously show others how we are trying to grow in virtue rather than polluting the stream with social status. We are not perfect, but the priorities in our life could inspire those around us to embrace the family.
Lena Schuck is a wife and mother of four who lives in Regina, Sask. This Christmas, she will be giving out hearty handshakes and home-baked cookies, and encourages others to reciprocate likewise.