When I was a little girl, the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog was a big event. My sisters and I waited impatiently for it to show up on the mail box sometime after Thanksgiving. We carefully turned each page, coveting each beautiful doll, bicycle, and game. We circled the things we wanted most only to find something even more wonderful on the next page.
When I was six years old, I knew a girl who had a doll that walked! She was almost life-sized and had blond, curly hair. I don’t know how the mechanics worked, but she could actually walk! I wanted a doll like that. I begged my parents. I wrote to Santa. I studied the walking dolls in the catalog. I could just imagine how wonderful it was going to be to have such a doll. I had other dolls, but they couldn’t walk. This would be the best doll.
Christmas Eve came and there was a doll-box shaped package for me under the tree. I could hardly breath with excitement. I opened it first. It was, indeed, a walking doll. She wasn’t life-size. She was only 15 inches tall, but she did have long blonde curls. She was hard plastic and walked stiffly as you pivoted her from one leg to another. I tried hard not to cry with disappointment. I knew my parents had tried hard to grant me my wish, but the small, stiff, hard doll who walked like a zombie didn’t quite measure up to what I had dreamed about. I tried to love the doll, but she was hard to dress and was not cuddly at all. Her glued-on wig came off and the rubber bands inside her body that held her arms and legs broke. I went back to playing with my older dolls soon after Christmas.
Sometimes I still feel like that little girl whose family was too poor to buy a beautiful, blonde, life-sized walking doll. I’m envious of the things other have. I feel deprived and anxious because I can’t afford a new car or a new cell phone. I’d like new counter tops in my kitchen. The cabinets could really use some updating and a food processor would really make my life easier.
Comparing my life and stuff to others’ produces frustration, anger and a feeling that my hard work is futile. I can convince myself that I am the victim of great injustice. Why is it that I work so hard, play by the rules and still can’t seem to get ahead?
I think I’m looking in the wrong direction and at the wrong markers of success.
As a little girl I envied the friend who had the life-sized doll with blond curls that could walk on her own. I did not think about the friend whose family’s home had burned. My other little friend had no dolls, no toys, no clothes other than what neighbor had helpfully gathered.
I was unaware of the rest of the world, 99 percent of whom had far less than I had. I compared my life to the wrong neighbors.
I still do that. I look at the extravagant, wasteful lives of the very rich and feel the burden of not having enough. I look at the advertisements that arrive earlier and earlier each year which tell me I need new things and need to give new things to others who also have too many new things. We are told that we need to consume more to keep our economy growing. It feels like a competition in which the winner is the one that dies with the most stuff.
Perhaps we need to look the other direction. My house, humble as it is with cupboards that need updating and countertops that are worn out, is a mansion compared to the home of the family I stayed with on a mission trip to Mexico. My car, even though it’s odometer has tallied miles over 150,000 still runs reliably and gets 40 miles per gallon. Best of all, it’s paid for. I have more than enough good food. I have wood and fuel oil to keep my house warm. I am healthy. I have healthy, happy children and grandchildren. I own a computer, a cell phone, and far too much other stuff. If I look at my life from the perspective of the rest of the world, I live in abundance. I don’t need to feel envy of others.
This is a good time of year to reevaluate what we need versus what we want, to give gifts that mean something, to give more of ourselves and consume less. Living simply, however, is just the start. The rest of the world will not automatically live better because a few of us do with less. We need to find ways to share our abundance, not just deprive ourselves. We need to work with and for those who have less, who are kept poor by injustice and greed. We need to do so on both personal and on larger political levels. And we need to do this all year, every day.
I still have my walking doll. She lies in parts in a trunk where I keep treasures I can’t bear to throw away. She reminds me that coveting what someone else has doesn’t always give us what we dream of, but can leave us holding something that is hard, cold and disappointing.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains