How Much Is Enough?

Practice of the Week
How Much Is Enough

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

Not long ago, my family had an old clunker of a car that we jokingly referred to as “the rust bucket,” or just “the bucket.” It was small, got good gas mileage, was used mostly for short trips, and was about fifteen years old and looked its age. It got so awful looking that our kids were embarrassed to be seen in it. If they needed to go somewhere, they would beg for us to take the minivan instead. Mostly we acquiesced, but occasionally the kids were forced to ride in the bucket, much to their dismay.

My personal concerns about the bucket centered mostly on its potential to break down at inopportune times, but I confess that there were moments when I felt a little twinge of what my kids expressed. A small, deep-down part of me wanted to hang a large sign on the bucket that read something like, “We’re trying to save the earth’s resources!” My feelings about the bucket are not something I’m proud of, but they are revealing.

My feelings are evidence that I am still embedded in a culture that equates status with expensive stuff. I cannot remove myself from my culture completely. Not all cultures are like ours in this respect: some accord more status for wisdom or generosity, and very little for material possessions. Ours, however, is a culture where we judge others by their evident wealth. To one degree or another, we all experience pressure to keep up appearances we deem appropriate to our social standing. Even in the midst of an economic collapse, people struggling to pay their bills may go to great lengths to keep up the illusion of prosperity.

Tragically, dysfunctional American concepts of status are spreading. The nouveau riche class in emerging industrialized countries (China, India, for example) is increasingly enamored with conspicuous consumption, and the growing middle class follows their lead.

Our present bases of status are not only hazardous to our financial security but also to our collective ecological security. And we know it. We all know intellectually that endlessly increasing consumption is unsustainable for the Earth.

What others thinks of us will always matter. We want to be valued and respected. We want to be held in high regard by those around us. We want people, even strangers, to judge us favorably. These desires are as old as humanity itself and form the bedrock on which all the cultural pressures pile up. The work before us is not to try to change the bedrock (an impossible task) but rather to change the culture – to shift the way we accord status. This will be difficult, but not impossible.


1. Neighborhood Walk. Who are the proverbial “Joneses” where you live? What about them qualifies them for that moniker? Take a walk around your neighborhood. Mentally note what seems to constitute status. House size or style? A certain type of car? Perhaps the regular comings and goings of a decorator? Maybe in your area, status is even a little eco-oriented, such as solar panels on the roof. If you live in a city, how is status expressed for apartment dwellers? Location? Or something else? How might status be expressed differently in a blue-collar neighborhood than a white-collar one? Does the state of the economy influence expressions of status? What might people be trying to express through their outward symbols of status?

2. Journaling: Childhood Walk. Take an imagined mental walk down the streets of your childhood neighborhood. Visualize each house or apartment building, along with the cars, gardens, and people. In your journal, describe your childhood neighborhood and reflect on such questions as: Who had the fanciest house? Were all the houses similar? Who were the “Joneses” of your childhood? As a child, how did you perceive the people who lived around you? Were you the top dog or the underdog? Did your family’s economic status have an impact on how you were perceived? Was the neighborhood mixed in terms of income, or more homogenous?

3. Altar: Inner and Outer Life. On one side of your altar, place three or four items that symbolize your outer life and how the world perceives you: your work, your socioeconomic status, your home, or any aspect of your identity that is open to the public eye. On the other side, place three or four items that symbolize your inner life: aspects that are more personal and private. These may be religious or spiritual symbols, or items that represent any part of your life that the world does not see. Leave the items separated on the altar for a few days. Spend some time observing your creation and musing on its meaning. Next, remove any items that do not represent what you consider to be the real you. What’s left? Is it a mix, or are the items now only from one side? Leave the new arrangement in place for a few days and muse on what it says.

Group Activities

What’s Your "Bucket"? Group members each share a story of when they were compared to others regarding material status or possessions in an uncomfortable or unfavorable way. At the end of each story, the other group members mention noneconomic qualities they see in the person who just spoke (e.g., friendliness, compassion, creativity).

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • Many religious traditions contain parables, stories, or proverbs about the dangers of judging by outward appearances. What does your faith say on the subject?
  • Have you ever been in the home of someone who was very status conscious and wealthy enough to fully express it? What was your emotional response to the experience? Were you at all envious?
  • If you have children, how do concepts of status affect their world? Do they feel pressure to keep up with the junior Joneses? How?
  • How does our present culture reinforce concepts of status based on material possessions? What might status look like in a culture that truly valued ecological sustainability?

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Previous Ecospiritual Practice: Turn Away from Mindless Living
Next Ecospiritual Practice: Cogs in the Machine

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