In 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen Hatmaker presents a tongue-in-cheek vision of herself as multiple-personality-disordered in facing the challenge of modern shopping. She juggles, in her own words, three personas.
"Sometimes my organic personality, Sage Moonjava, emerges; and my top priority is to buy real food with wholesome ingredients... Sage gravely reads the biscuit ingredients, all twenty-nine of them. She recalls the dreadful farming practices that produced those hormone-injected, antibiotic-laden eggs....
But at other times my 'buy local' personality, Ryvre, materializes. Attempting to support the local economy and diminish the high ecological impact of importing goods, this seems like the winning approach...
My third alter-ego, Freedom Shakra..., is trying to unhook from the consumer machine, and all this buying is not helping. Freedom Shakra is just trying to spend less, way less...
Ryvre is horrified by Freddom Shakra's priority to buy cheap, and she outright mocks Sage and Ryvre for spending on 'local' and 'organic.' The competing voices confused me, and I'm not sure which personality should dominate... I've either spent too much, bought cheap processed junk, or subsidized the sweatshot industry."
This picture is amusing and cute (classic Hatmaker) - but also real. That's what made it, for me, one of the book's most insightful nuggets. Fact is, it's actually really hard to shop responsibly in the modern age and feel good about your purchases. Too many choices, too many filters, too hard to figure out the priorities.
There's a lot to ponder in each category. My own "Sage Moonjava," carer-about-wholesome-foods, showed up the first time I read The Omnivore's Dilemma. When I pondered Pollen's findings, I couldn't figure out how to reconcile God's call to 'rule the beasts' with the barbarism we moderns employ in factory farming. We do keep hens and produce some meat at home in our sheep, which is a start. But in buying, I feel stuck between ideal and budget-driven-reality. Half the time I shell out the dough for the humane/organic/grass-fed/(expensive) stuff, and half the time I don't and feel guilty. I feel no guilt when I buy non-organic produce, which is more than half the time, since vegetables can't suffer the same way poorly-treated animals can (logical or ridiculous? You tell me). And until our family's Gluten-Necessitated Total Eating Overhaul, I paid little attention to the idea that modern processing of foods was causing ill-effects on humanity at large. Now I see the landscape a bit differently. Reading A Compromised Generation has been my latest chapter of Sage Moonjava, an eyeopener to be sure.
My "Ryvre" character - the girl thinking about local vs. outsourced- isn't as developed as my "Sage," but she's around. She pulled up her chair when I read The Wal-Mart Effect, which got me thinking not just about cheap labor but about the sheer volume of goods we encounter - and purchase- in today's world. Marketing specialists wonder what's occurring with the exponentially higher volume of T-shirts that consumers own today as compared to in former decades. What are people doing with them? No one knows, but hey - T-shirt sales are up. The fact that moms like me are drowning in not just their own oversupply - of T-shirts, tupperware, jewelry, you name it - but the oversupply of all their family members turns out to be a huge facet of modern parenting. How can we moms manage all this stuff? The floods of kid trinkets and plastic and gimmicks litter our kitchens, and eventually our cupboards-- requiring far more effort in organizing and purging than anyone wants to give. Behind all this craziness is the thorny cheap labor issue, and the intrinsic and ecological value of locally-produced goods. I don't get too far on all this beyond frequenting the farmer's market, buying used whenever possible, and not spending too much time in big box stores. And wishing it were all simpler.
The Freedom Shakra figure - the frugal persona - is the one most familiar to me... And the one who's historically tended to trump the other girls. I was raised a frugal Yankee and a bargain shopper, and a frugal Yankee and bargain shopper I remain. Inspiring stories and suggestions like those of Owlhaven's Mary Ostyn in Family Feasts for $75 a Week call to me -- save two grand a year just by shopping and cooking smarter? Sign me up! The irony is, though, that you have to count the cost when you fixate on frugality - the human cost, the health cost, the schedule-reality cost. What do you lose when you save? Because of course it's worth sacrificing to save money, but you have to figure out what exactly you're sacrificing. And then figure out if those sacrifices are sustainable, wise, or worth it. This is the kind of figuring I'm doing now, after decades of knee-jerk penny pinching.
So where does this leave me? With Jen Hatmaker, I'm afraid - conflicted, a little bedraggled, and working to sort through it all. It would be great to feel that we could synthesize our competing personas and "get it all figured out," but I'm pretty sure that's not realistic. The fact is that we live in a messy world, and there's no way to live at the top of our priority list on all our priorities. Do we pay attention, learn, care, try our best as we purchase? Of course - we can and must. That is, after all, what it means to live well and responsibly in our age. But part of that responsibility is employing wisdom to see that compromise is going to be necessary. Because we can only do what we can do. And we aren't called to more than that.