Friday, March 07, 2008

A Source for My Stuff

George Carlin recorded a comedy album entitled "A Place for My Stuff". I remember it being hilarious. We who are blessed to live in rich countries (or who are just plain rich) often laugh about or lament the status of all our stuff. Stuff accumulates. We have silly stuff, good stuff, important stuff, and useless stuff. I believe we would generally say that we have too much stuff (or at least too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of some other stuff). When I am in a generous mood, it may occur to me that many other folks are actually quite short on stuff. Not merely poor, but actually starving or freezing to death.

We all need to spend some time thinking about where all that stuff comes from. It is not enough to just say, let's divide what we have more equally. Even the best stuff only lasts so long and much is quite temporary (as with food). So what is the source for all the stuff we hope to share? I devised a thought experiment to help:

I imagine myself standing out in a wilderness somewhere with nothing on my body and nothing in my possession. Naked as a jay bird was the common phrase when I was a kid. Without even a pot to piss in was another.

Water, food, clothing, and shelter will soon come to my mind. Where shall I start? Perhaps I will cut a few branches and make a rude shelter (oops, no knife, this is nasty hard work with no knife).
I look for something to eat and soon realize that I have virtually no knowledge of what I might eat safely. I may manage to eat a few berries or a grasshopper without getting violently ill, but I am still pretty hungry. I see a rabbit grazing nearby, and amazingly enough, I manage to hit it with a rock and kill it. With a jagged rock and a lot of jerking and tearing I wind up with some raw meat and a raggedy piece of raw pelt. Not the finest dining and casual wear. Assuming I don't die of exposure, and that I can find some water, it looks like I have a good shot at living a week or even a month in abject misery before something kills me (hunger, disease, insect bites, or an accident of some sort). The local predators leave me alone, but I suspect that it because I seem unappetizing as opposed to threatening.

If I could have just a few things, what would I hope for? A knife or hatchet. A few articles of appropriate clothing. A fish hook. What is the source of such things? A store or a peddler, of course, but where do they get them? A blacksmith could whip up a metal object, assuming access to metal and tools to work it with. Where do they get the metal? Rocks. It's something about digging up rocks and wresting the metal from them (uh oh, need some tools again).
Just keep thinking it through. The crudest bare metal knife requires a very involved set of processes, lots of knowledge, and a lot of work. Something as simple as a cotton T shirt starts with "cultivate and harvest cotton". Making thread and turning thread into cloth will prove to be daunting tasks.

Being all alone seems to be a big part of the problem. Suddenly, I discover a crowd of ten thousand people who have been miraculously transported to a meadow near the scene of the rabbit carnage. Hurray, I am saved! Oops. Maybe not yet. They too are naked as jay birds and are urinating without containers. We are relieved to discover that we all speak a common language, but dismayed when we find that few of us know much at all about making things. Eventually, however, we find that there are a few of us that know a bit about one thing or another. A few more explore and experiment and learn a bit more. Those with knowledge and ability divide their time between actually doing those things and teaching some of the rest of us to help. Others care for the children (I didn't say 10,000 adults!) or fetch and carry whatever is needed by those who seem to know what they are doing. Gradually we begin to accumulate a bit of food, a few rude articles of clothing, and find a cave or built a hut or two. Even supposing a miraculously loving group of 10,000, we have problems deciding how to divide up the fruits of our collective labor. We certainly want to keep the knowledgeable and able people fed, or we will all die. We all love the kids and do what we can to help them. How long before we start looking for someone who doesn't "deserve" a share or who ought to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of others? It's only stuff, but suddenly living and dying depend on how much we get. And even if we are so noble as to be willing to sacrifice ourselves by going without, will that help the others in the longer term? Will our children be better off? If I happen to be the only authority on edible plants, shouldn't I keep living for the sake of the others?

Water and food. Dry and warm. All depend on the sum total of our knowledge and work.

Now I fast forward quite a few thousand years and discover that many of the ten thousand survived to prosper and propagate themselves. Now there are 10 billion. However, some are comfortable and well fed, others hover on the edge of catastrophe, and many millions are dying for want of basic stuff. Would a forced redistribution of all the stuff owned by these 10 billion guarantee survival and comfort for all? Even if it could,how would such a thing be enforced? Nor would a redistribution remain static thereafter. Stuff wears out. Stuff is consumed. We still need sources for more stuff.

I will end the thought experiment here for now. I see the need to produce stuff. I see the need for knowledge. I see the need for work. I know that some sort of social cohesion must be fostered. I may even be more inclined to share my stuff with those who have less. I pray that I will be given wisdom about meeting those needs. I pray that God will grant me the ability to work effectively and to share generously. May God help me to love even those who seem bent on disrupting whatever fragile peace we manage to attain. May he give me discernment about when I must forgive and when, if ever, I must fight.
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