I dropped my cellphone. It slipped from my too-full hands and crashed at the Wal-Mart checkout. It was the second time it happened that day. Poor little, underappreciated device, I casually picked it up and shoved its battery back in, replacing its rear end to restore its dignity.
The young male cashier commented, "I love how you just pick it up, like 'no big deal'. If that was a smartphone I would have been freaking out, like 'Everybody remain calm!'."
I laughed. "I don't have a smartphone, but my son really wants one."
"My little brother is only maybe a little bigger than him," he said, indicating my five-year-old Danny I supposed. "And he has a smartphone, an I Pad, two tablets."
"I was talking about my twelve-year-old," I responded.
"Oh," the genial young man replied, confused. "Well, uh...have a nice day."
What was left for him to say at that impasse of philosophies? That conversation illustrates my idea of a healthy world and the current, mad trend. Does anybody left in this technological age believe in choices? In consumer wisdom and conservation of resources? Or the idea to earn through effort and sacrifice what you desire?
Hmmm. We give I Pads and tablets to toddlers. We plant phones in the hands of often foolish adolescents who do not understand privacy and courtesy as it was understood just within the last century and who do not appreciate what is simply handed to them. We listen to acquaintances complain about the cost of gas in shepherding their children to activities, or credit card debt, or mortgages, meanwhile holding in their hands an "indispensable" and very pricey smartphone or tablet.
Yes, my Berto, at the ripe old age of twelve, wants a cellphone. No, excuse me, a smartphone. He moans when we announce he can have a flip phone like mine when activities get too great, and he must go many places without us. He wants a smartphone. Anything less would be embarrassing.
He asked if he could have one if he helped pay for it, but his dad pointed out that it is not just about the sticker price of such an expensive gadget, it is the money we will pay monthly for data, talk, and texting service. But every last one of his friends has a smartphone! I believe him, though it makes me shake my head and moan in turn.
I understand peer pressure. I understand that phones are the new status symbol. So why will we not get him a cellphone? Well, my philosophy on life does not allow for status symbols, first of all. But it is also for the same reason that I tell my preschooler no, we can't get a balloon or toy at the grocery store, because balloons and toys are for special occasions. It is for the same reason that I tell my younger children that, no, we can't eat out at a fast food restaurant today, because we just got take-out as a family last week, and to eat out every week or every few days would be financially foolish. It is for the same reason that my children keep their school backpacks for at least a couple years or until they wear out.
No, that reason is not that I am a meanie head. It is that I dislike consumerism, and I dislike a throw-away mentality (and, yes, that includes exchanging an electronic gadget for a new one simply because a more advanced version has come out, or trashing a backpack merely because it is so "last year"), and I dislike going into debt by nickeling and diming myself to death over things that do not matter.
I believe in choices. If we buy that bigger house, we cannot take a fancy family vacation months later. If I got Starbucks last week, I will not get it this week. We do not need more toys - ever! - because most toys do not help a child grow their imagination, only serving to clutter our lives and our home with useless junk. No, we will not have a TV in every room, and definitely not in the bedrooms. We only need one computer in this family. My kids cannot have a huge birthday party with their friends and a ton of presents from us and go out to dinner. If they have the party or take two or three friends on a fun outing, they receive only birthday books from Mama and Papa.
But it's about so much more. It is about being aware of the world around us. I am convinced that if we all read the news, the real news, every day, we would not feel the urge to get that bigger house, sleeker car, brand new gadget, or even that junk food that we crave. For in reading about an African slum quarantined because of Ebola in which the thousands of residents only have three restrooms between them, we become aware of our foolish claims. In reading the words of a young boy in a refugee camp as he cries that he has no parents, no education, and no hope, we become more aware of our self-absorption. In seeing the pictures of minorities driven out of their homes by extremists, we become aware of what truly matters, and we recollect the words of a wise man who said, "Live simply, so that others may simply live."
The conversation with my children about these vital matters are frequent, and I confess I am perhaps too heavy-handed. Yet, in speaking to them about how we, here in America, run to the grocery store on a whim, because we are "out of ice cream" or "we need that Irish soda bread with the raisins" for our St. Patrick's day dinner, juxtaposing that with families living in Haiti who are eating dirt biscuits for their dinner and kids in Africa who are getting worms from poor drinking water and AIDS orphans living several to a mud hut, they can see, I fervently hope, just how spoiled we are and how we should really try not to be. We can then choose together not to make that trip to the store for things that are so obviously superfluous to our health and happiness.
You have heard about this "entitlement generation". Perhaps we have all become part of it. But what if we could save ourselves? What if we could change our kids' perspectives by teaching them that life is about choices? What if we instilled in their minds that status symbols passed out like stickers are worthless, but effort, solidarity and integrity are everything? What if we could all sacrifice pleasures and wants now and then in order to afford a greater charitable offering? We might then be able to fight the plague of consumerism, clutter and unreasonable expectations that are attacking the sense of what is truly necessary and enriching and destroying the spirit of hard work and sacrifice that our grandparents and parents exemplified.
Yes, I am crazy, and, yes, I have my own consumer weaknesses. I wish I could get a Starbucks every day! I balk at cooking dinner most nights. If chocolate is on sale, I'll grab it. And I have at times desired that bigger, nicer home. No one has yet or ever will walk into my home, and declare it to be gorgeous, beautifully decorated and exquisitely furnished. Our house is small; most of our furniture is second-hand and repurposed; and nearly everything on my walls or shelves that could be termed "décor" was given to me by family members or friends - therefore not complementary but full of sentimental significance. And that is suitable. Alas, I'm too frugal to buckle under pressure for appearances. The antidote is in acknowledging the poverty in the world around me. And so every day I thank God for our health, our home, our food, our safety, our overwhelming blessings that may seem so plain and unadorned to the world's eyes.
And what of my beautiful, intelligent oldest son? Well, we didn't refuse him a smartphone, because we don't love him. We didn't get him one yet, because we do love him. You can spoil kids with things, but you can never spoil them with love or attention. (Hold that baby as long as you like!) I have assured him that by not caving to the world's superficial expectations of him, by not burying his mind in myriad electronic distractions, he will someday grow to be a successful leader and team player, able to look into others' eyes while communicating effectively (for which characteristic other parents have already praised him), full of the solid values and soft skills with which every human being should be armed against vanity, dissipation and selfishness.
What is important, after all? It's all about choices.