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Sufficiency, Sustainability and the Dreaded Common Good

My Closet
My Closet (Photo credit: kian esquire)

Sufficiency: What is enough? A small closet of clothes that can be worn to the office, and a few things for the weekend—or a walk-in closet filled with fifty pairs of shoes and sweaters that still have the price tag dangling from the sleeve? I happen to love clothes. I like to dress up for work. I like to dress up to have lunch with a friend. In the past I have been known to tell my husband that a woman cannot have too many pairs of black shoes. Now I am asking, at what cost?

As my income increases, so do the contents of my closet. Some new summer clothes, even though the old ones are fine. Bags taken to Sister Carmen’s filled with fashion from a couple of years ago make me feel that I am doing my part. What is enough? Following the story about the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh with one eye open and the other closed, I began to wonder about the true price of my fashion jones. Nothing in my closet is made in America. Have you ever tried to buy clothes that are made in America? They are very difficult to find. Everything is made in China, India, Mexico and I, along with my fellow Americans have come to expect and demand quality clothing at a more than reasonable price, made by human beings who work 14 to 16 hour shifts, or more for .48 cents per hour in conditions that are neither safe or pleasant in any way. I don’t like to think about it, do you? There is someone literally slaving so that I can have more—someone with a mother and a father, maybe children; someone who goes to sleep at night worrying about taking care of their family. A human being.

I’d like to see jobs come back to America. We can make our own clothes, but they will cost more so maybe we won’t or can’t have as many things. Would that be okay? In this country, buildings have to be inspected to be safe and well ventilated. Workers need to take breaks for lunch. By law they can only work eight hours and some amount of over-time with extra pay. In other words, American workers, in most instances are treated like human beings and not slaves. I would feel better about wearing a skirt made by someone in this country who has a job in a safe environment for a decent wage. The question all of us should be asking is what is sufficient? Is it a small closet of clothes or a walk-in? Where do you really sit with giving up a little bit so that someone else can have a little bit too?

Sustainability: Aging teaches you a lot of things and one of those things is this stark recognition that no matter how much you have acquired in your life, you cannot take any of it with you. Right now my husband and I live in a big house that is both beautiful and comfortable and we are talking about purchasing a different house that is smaller and on one level, because taking care of a house this size and running up and down the stairs is not going to be sustainable as we continue to get older.

I open my cupboards and I see the dishes that we bought two decades ago and I remember how it was snowing and we were so excited about finding the right pattern to go with our newly remodeled kitchen. When I die, those dishes will be so much junk. Knowing my nieces, they will probably box them up and take them to Sister Carmen’s. My mother’s china, that I have never used, delicate and filled with roses will go as well and that milk glass olive dish that I remember at every single Thanksgiving dinner of my childhood may find its way to the dumpster. I can only hope that it is with a parade, a little bit of pomp and circumstance that honors its noble role of holding olives for so many decades. None of this is sustainable though—landfills are bursting with once treasured items. But how many of us would be willing to eat off of mismatched dishes that tell a story? Eventually wouldn’t we want to make a trip to Pottery Barn? That has become the American way.

Sustainability threads its way through our culture just asking to be felt. What we are seeing is what is unsustainable: oil, our current health care system, the banking system, the true cost of goods that involves the cost of human life, and waste. We are not asking ourselves what is enough or what is sustainable. Or if we are, more of us need to be asking more often.

The Common Good: Somehow Ayn Rand’s words of fiction have been twisted to represent a real life world of “winners” and “losers” that makes it oh so easy to turn a blind eye to factories collapsing in Bangladesh while we eat our salad for lunch and go for a mani-pedi. If you are a winner, good for you. You are therefore a superior person and it is not your job to worry about poor people or sick people or old people, because they are all losers and takers. And it you are a loser, then screw you. You did your life wrong. Go get a job and take that little brat with you. It’s an ugly, ugly consciousness that permeates a small but powerful segment of our society and its leadership. It says there is never enough for me, and you do not deserve any. It turns a blind eye to anything that smacks of compassion.

The common good is an inclusive term that makes all of us responsible for one another. Who am I and what have I become if I do not acknowledge and want to alleviate the suffering in the world?  Who am I if I need so much stuff in my closet to feel good about myself that I don’t stop to ponder who made the stuff and under what conditions?

I don’t have any easy answers. I just have the beginnings of a dialogue that I want to have with myself, with my friends and with those twerps in Washington who I occasionally email. What is enough? What is sustainable? What is best for the common good? What will give my soul peace so that I leave this world a better than I found it? No easy answers, but it is certainly time to start with the questions, don’t you think?

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