Thursday, April 1, 2010

First in Line at the Worldwide Buffet

A few years ago, I returned home with a self-satisfied smile. I had just donated five pairs of running shoes to an organization that would deliver them to needy people. It was a special moment because I had decided not to ask for a receipt. Taxes played no role in my generosity. Then I kicked myself. They were junk shoes, worn out by my standards, good for gardening and other chores, not much else.

A couple days after my generosity, I got kicked again. National Public Radio interviewed a marathoner (perhaps it was "Barefoot Ted," mentioned in "Born to Run") who planned to run the Boston Marathon barefoot. He claimed he’d run 12,000 miles shoeless with less damage to his feet than the black toenails he lost and blisters he suffered when he ran a marathon wearing shoes. And reportedly he’s on a mission, recruiting others to join his campaign against the technology that has turned our feet into soft, sensitive tissue. Humans have run barefoot for years, says he, and we’re intended to do so. According to him, we can train ourselves to run barefoot, on all kinds of surfaces, even pavement, by running more softly and using our knees to help cushion each landing.

So I donated my beat-up shoes to some poor souls who may already know how to walk and run much better than I. Congratulations. Will they have me to thank for plantar fascitis and sore backs?

My little gift teleported me to the Third World, where people live on a few dollars a day. For years I assumed they would and should envy the lifestyle we enjoy in America, and we have a responsibility, in our goodness, to make it available to them. Of course, it would help them and bring them true happiness, too.

Then I read a book by Jim Merkle, entitled Radical Simplicity. Merkle asks his readers to picture a bountiful buffet, with all the people on Earth, all six billion of today’s inhabitants, standing in line. Try to picture their descendants behind them. We who got there first are at the very front and have the opportunity to take all we want. But, Merkle warns us, if we take too much, there won’t be enough for all the people waiting in line. What would we do? In fact, what are we doing? And is it good and right to try to coax others to join us?

I’m afraid I haven’t changed my behavior much since I read that book, but my brain cells have done a fair amount of noodling. Wherever I go, I notice an almost endless set of choices. The grocery store offers me a hundred types of morning cereal. I wonder how a person who lives on three dollars a day in Kenya would react if he were taken to our store and told he could buy any one cereal he wanted.

A few years ago, we bought the farm house we now live in and began to rehabilitate it. Many people would have gutted its inside and made everything brand spanking new. We thought about that. Not for long and not because of Merkle’s huge buffet line, but because we like the old craftsmanship and see it as endangered. I couldn’t shake the specter of the buffet, though. Part of me looked at each step we took on this house and asked, “Why can’t we live with this? Someone did a hundred years ago. Why can’t we?” Much too often, a big part of the answer is it might not look good to someone else.

Today, thriftiness experiments are hot. A book entitled On a Dollar a Day was released in February, by a couple who tried for a month to live in San Diego on $1 per day for food -- see

A fellow in San Francisco is trying to avoid riding in a car -- see

Some Seattle folks are not buying any clothes other than underwear -- see

The next time you contemplate buying something, ask yourself, “Why can’t I live with what I already have?” Especially when the answer is something like, “Well, I don’t have a shirt that goes well with these shorts.” Of all those shirts in your drawers and closets, none goes with that pair of shorts?

Virginia says, "You're a fun sucker."

"I know," I say, "but I think it's important to ask these questions."

"I agree," says Virginia, "the key to a better world is hidden in there somewhere."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and resources. I have some money I invest in peoples' ideas but none has gone out since we moved here. It sits in the bank doing nothing. No one is calling me (no one I want to invest in). Lots of organizations want me to give them money.