Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A McMansion Moment

I once came across a quote that read, roughly: “Social justice exists at the intersection of rhetoric and envy.” While it’s quite likely that whoever originated the quote was loitering at the corner of avarice and self-justification, this kind of mean-spirited overgeneralization is always more painful when barbed with a modicum of truth.

I have been systematically downsizing the “stuff” in my home and in my life for the better part of five years, now, with a deep conviction that I ought to be simplifying. That I need to set an example for my children about what is “enough” and about real joy having nothing to do with the things we think we want. I try to live by the adage: “Happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you have.”

So why is it, then, when I drove through a nearby neighborhood of enormous houses the other day did I find myself thinking, “Who are all these people who can afford these houses? What do they do for a living and how on earth can there be so many of them?!?” I call incidents such as these "having a McMansion moment." Implicit in my confusion is the additional question: “What am I doing wrong that I don’t live like this?” Envy. Then judgment: “Whoever these people are, they obviously have no moral conscience that they would choose a life of such conspicuous consumption while children are going hungry every day.”

It’s easy from that jumping-off-point to rage against the American economic machine that rewards the wealthy to the detriment of the poor and riff endlessly upon how a simple redistribution of such massive wealth could solve a myriad of social ills. Mind you, I am not, for even a moment, saying I agree with the above quote. I think most people who struggle for social justice have no ambitions to golf-course living. But if I’m to be honest, I need to cop to the fact that sometimes I just wish I had more, and if it came at the expense of those McMansion dwellers, that wouldn’t be so bad. And I don’t even know them.

On the other hand I truly do think—not as a product of envy, but as a product of my Christian belief system—that such exorbitant wealth carries with it at least the temptation to evil, if money cannot be said to be evil unto itself. I don’t know if I’ve heard this quote somewhere or if I made it up myself, but I giggle, sometimes, when I think, “Well, I don’t have a lot of money. So I have to have values.” Hah! As if the wealthy are completely bereft of conscience! Then again, if a tiny piece of my desire for social justice arises out of envy, surely a tiny piece of their chosen lifestyle arises out of greed?

The truth hurts, doesn’t it?