Sunday, January 21, 2007


A couple of weeks ago I read Judith Levine's book Not Buying It: My year Without Shopping . It's a good read, just like you've heard, and it was enjoyable to observe that she took it just like I would've taken such an experiment - sometimes resentful, restless, bored and other times happy, unencumbered, a little self-righteous.

But the part that was most interesting to me was (apologies to JL, the book is back at the library, so I'm paraphrasing now) how the whole experiment reduced her autonomy and sense of personal power. She said something about how it's your power to buy things that make you an autonomous person in this culture, and being autonomous makes you an adult. Sometimes she said she felt like a child - for example when someone would ask her to a movie and she would say "I'm not buying anything." and they would say "I'll buy!" Then she'd have to choose to forgo the movie, or to, child-like, allow her friend to buy for her. Anyway, ultimately, it seemed to me that it was not the stuff (or even experiences) that she missed, but the power that the stuff and the ability to experience gave her.

This week, I'm reading Kushner's Living a Life that Matters: Resolving the conflict between conscience and success. It's not giving me what I hoped, which is ammunition (I wrote that word, took it out and then wrote it again, because that IS what I mean) for a sermon I want to write soon about how the best way to tithe is to give it all away and follow Jesus, and how the second best way is to give ten percent (yes, that IS before taxes, bucko) of your money to the church, because if you're doing a certain amount of harm by your job in corporate america, you might as well try to do a certain amount of good, too. And by "a certain amount," I mean about 8 percent more than you're doing now.

Anyway, the book's not helping me with that, but as you'd expect if you've read any Kushner it's got loads of good little stories and a few helpful insights. And here I find myself reading about power again. He's talking about how victims of crimes often speak of the "shame" they feel, which used to shock him. He says:
What did they have to be ashamed of? They were innocent victims! Only recently did I come to understand them. The shame they felt was the shame of powerlessness...

Kushner's theory (which I appreciate in theory, but thankfully have never had to implement) is that by giving the victim a chance to speak, they can reclaim their power.

These are two such different ways of talking about power, yet there's something about them that feels the same to me. For both authors, there has been a power imbalance, and there is a clear path to walk, which will restore the balance. Consumerism and forgiveness don't at first glance seem to have anything in common. But Levine knows that all she has to do is buy her own ticket and balance will be restored, Kushner knows that all it takes is telling the story and hearing the admission of guilt for the same to happen.

If you read this blog at all regularly, you know that my husband has muscular dystrophy. That means that his muscles are weak, so even a little cough can really lay him out. And this thing he's got going on for the last week and a half is not just a little cough. We've tried consumerism - bought bottles of zinc, boxes of kleenex, cab rides to xrays. We've tried kindness - we wash our hands with lavender soap, we take a lot of naps and drink a lot of tea.

But really, we're powerless here. Levine and Kushner do have it right that being powerless fills you with the helpless rage of children tantruming at the candy store. No wonder it's so depressing being this kind of sick. Because unlike in the books, there's no imbalance here that is easily remedied. This virus will just have to run its course. We will do the things we know how, but they will not tip the scales. Only time can do that.

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