Last year I wrote an article suggesting that the American definition of freedom, “free to do whatever the hell my desires tell me to do,” is really just a different kind of slavery, a sub-human slavery to animal instinct. But recently I have noticed I have become annoyed with another kind of slavery in this “land of the free.” It is found most often in the phrases “I have to” or “I can’t”*
“Sorry kids, we can’t afford to go out to eat.”
“I have to work 60 hours a week just to get by.”
“We both have to work.”
“We can’t afford local or organic produce.”
“We have to have music and a sermon for it to be church.”
“Sorry son, I can’t make it to your game tomorrow.”
Every time I hear these phrases, I find myself disappointed.
And for three reasons.
First, the most disappointing thing about all of these statements is that they simply lack imagination. We would rather let our lives slip by than do the hard work of changing our habits, priorities, values, and daily practices that would allow us to do those things we say we believe in. They do not believe that with God all things are possible. They have bought into the systems of the world and honestly think they cannot do anything about it.
We live in an ironic world where we largely live our way of life because everyone else is. But everyone else is because we are. In this glorious land of the free we all end up pretty much living the same way as everyone else. To be different is simply to dress up the same systems in different clothes. To be truly different or to even question the systems is to be labeled a fanatic, radical, hippy, agitator, or simply “out of touch.” Apparently we didn’t learn anything from the first Matrix…
But the second disappointment is that we are absolutely lying to ourselves and the people closest to us. Almost every time we say “can’t” or “have to” we are blaming our existence and choices on other people/things. We have convinced ourselves that even though we wish we were home with the kids more, working 60 hours a week really is necessary, even though we live in a 3 bedroom house in a nice neighborhood with 2 nice cars and 3 TVs. We are convinced that we really can’t buy our kids that jacket they really want even though we just went out to dinner last week and spent the same amount of money. My disappointment is not with what people choose to spend their money on, it’s that they don’t recognize that it’s a choice. We are enslaved to our habits, showing that we have lost our imagination and blame the realities of our life on other people and things.
If your priority is to have a spouse at home with the kids, you will make that existence work, even if it means having to get rid of all your cars and use public transportation. But if having 2 cars is more important than having a spouse at home with the kids, please just admit that to yourself and quit pretending like your life is outside of your control.
If your priority is to spend more time at home, you will find a way to do it. But it’s much easier to tell my kids that I “can’t” be home more because I “have” to work. That way, I (and they) blame my absence on the “system” or the “boss” rather than my unwillingness to create boundaries at work or quit my demanding job because it provides for the things I want, need, or both. Our current lifestyle reflects our current values, whether we admit it or not. But we are great at deceiving ourselves by saying that we wished for something different. But if it was important enough, we would find the imagination and courage to sacrifice other things in our life to make it so.
The third disappointment is that we are teaching our kids the same. Sarah was often told as a kid that she couldn’t do things because they couldn’t afford it. And so she grew up thinking she was poor and never had enough. Many of us inherit the belief that we never have enough…even though we are often from very middle class families. But the reality was that they chose not to buy certain things because they were either saving money for college, investing in Christian schools, or taking vacations. And so Sarah & I have vowed never to tell our kids that we cannot afford things but to tell our kids that our family has certain priorities and values, and those are what guide how we earn and spend our money. They may blame us more when they don’t get what they want, but the reality is, they should.
*I apologize that this is more rant-like than normal. It’s just difficult for me to see how often we are afraid to take responsibility for our own lives.