The joy of accounting

While cleaning out my files, I found this essay on the joy of accounting, which I wrote in February, 2005, when we lived in Geneva, Illinois.

How do you give an account of your spirituality? Perhaps I’d start in the present day, and in the place I’m now living. I live in Geneva, Illinois, on what used to be either an oak savannah or a prairie (we are no longer sure exactly where the boundary between the two lay), about a five minute walk from the Fox River. The Fox River originates to the north of us and eventually empties into the Illinois River. Most of the land in Geneva is now dominated by housing developments and shopping malls.

My partner and I arrived in Geneva last August, having driven here from Oakland, California. The rental market in Geneva had slumped, and we were able to find an affordable apartment a ten minute walk from the church where I’m now serving, and a fifteen minute walk from the commuter rail station, where we can catch a train that leaves us, an hour and ten minutes later, in the Ogilvie Transportation Center in downtown Chicago.

We are sharing a car this year. My partner is a freelance writer who travels frequently, and she owns a car which she keeps on the east coast, where she still does much of her work. The car we have here in Geneva is now twelve years old, and we drive it only once or twice a week.

People live in their cars here in the Midwest. It is common to drive your car to drive half a block, rather than try to walk. This part of Illinois alternates between hot, humid summer and cold, bitter winter, with perhaps two weeks of pleasant weather in the spring, and again in the fall. It is easy to get into the habit of driving everywhere. As a result, roads are wide, buildings are set far apart, housing developments go on for miles, shopping malls seem endless. There is no particular reason to leave any prairie or oak savannah within Geneva when you can drive a short twenty or thirty minutes to a county park.

My partner and I walk wherever we can. We live in the old part of Geneva, within the historic district, so there are still sidewalks. We can walk to the post office, to a drug store, to a hardware store; we can even walk to a small natural food store. We try to buy as much of our food as possible at this natural food store in spite of the high prices, but they don’t have any fresh produce. Once a week we drive a half hour each way to a large supermarket which carries some local and organic produce.

From the standpoint of strict financial accounting, the way we live our lives isn’t justifiable. True, we use our car so little that our automotive expenses remain low; I fill the gas tank in our car only once or twice a month. But we pay more when we shop primarily at stores within walking distance of our house. The neighborhood drug store has higher prices than the big chains. Sometimes food costs nearly twice as much at the little natural food store, and we could shop at the huge supermarket two miles away instead of insisting on buying local and organic produce.

To give a more precise accounting: In the past two months our automobile expenses were down to 6% of our total expenses, but groceries and other household expenses made up better than 7% of total expenses. We gave as much to our congregation and to charities as we spent on groceries. Our rent is probably lower than it would be if we lived in one of the fashionable townhouse apartment complexes, and made up only 10% of expenses. However, we rent the ground floor of a house built in the 1850’s, and while it has been modernized there is no doubt that our heating and other utility bills are higher than they could be. We also insist on paying for a fast Internet connection, and overall utilities made up more than 16% of our total expenses.

Accounting has become a necessary part of spirituality. Henry David Thoreau knew this a hundred and fifty years ago when he wrote Walden, which has become my favorite book of theology. The longest chapter is the first chapter, titled “Economy.” In it, we learn such trivia as the price of the boards Thoreau used to build his famous cabin — $8.03 1/2. Why not keep records to this degree of accuracy, down to the last half penny? Thoreau lived in the age of industrial capitalism, when such accounting had become necessary if one was to survive economically. And I don’t use the word “capitalism” in either a derogatory sense, nor a laudatory sense, but rather as an accurate description of the economic situation of Thoreau’s time.

Today we live in the age of consumer capitalism. In this age, we human beings play two equally important roles: producers, and consumers. We have to give an accounting of where we spend our money, to know how much we have produced and how much we have consumed. I go off to work, and then decide how to spend my paycheck. What I need to know is how much money I take in, and where I spend it. Time is considered money, whether we are producing or consuming, so we must also give an accounting of how we spend our time.

Some people bemoan the loss of the “good old days,” when you grew your own food on your own land, or at least next to the people who grew your food. When I was 14, I spent a couple of weekends picking apples, and I finished each day covered with the spray used as insecticide, and with bird droppings. Robert Frost wasn’t kidding when he said your feet keep the shape of the round rungs of the ladder. Since then, I’ve lived in California where you can see migrant farm workers cutting lettuce as fast as they can in the Central Valley of California in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Sure, it’s fun to garden when you’re not completely dependent on your harvest, but I have lost all illusions that growing your own food is a romantic proposition.

Some people bemoan the loss of the days when you actually worked with your hands, so that at the end of the day you had something to show for your work. I spent five years working for a carpenter. It was a good job, but I was always worried about getting hurt. It’s easy to get hurt when you work with your hands, and if you do get hurt you can’t work until you heal, which means you don’t get a paycheck. I still have all ten of my fingers, but many carpenters have lost one or more to power tools. Sure, it’s fun to work with your hands when you don’t need to depend on them to make a living, but I have lost most of my illusions that working with your hands is a romantic proposition.

Instead of looking back with nostalgia for a time that never really existed, maybe we need to face up to the realities of today. I am both a producer and a consumer. The vagaries of the economic situation in any given year could leave me without a job, but as long as I have a job, I consume. I know that today many people in our culture neither produce nor consume, and in fact are starving to death. Nor do I long for the “good old days” of the town poorhouse. But these things cannot make me deny my current roles as producer and consumer

Some people bemoan the loss of the good old days when spirituality simply poured out of your heart with out any effort or struggle. I once spent a little time in a congregation where people poured their hearts out in this way, and it was merely maudlin. Worse yet, when there is no accountability, people can get badly hurt by each other’s spirituality. Not that accounting is the ultimate solution. Certainly accounting has spoiled too many parts of organized religious life. Who wants to face some ledger book that tots up how many good things you’ve done in your life, and how many bad things, and assign values to each, and when you add all the columns up anyone can plainly see whether you’re predominantly good or evil? We believe that is what religion forced us to do in the bad old days, and none of us wants to go back to the bad old days. But it is no better to imagine some non-existent good old days when religion called for no accounting at all, when individuals were free to live life as they pleased, secure in the knowledge that each and every person had inherent worth and dignity, and that that was all the accounting that has ever been required. This kind of nostalgia ignores the fact that spirituality has always required us to face up to ourselves, and to the kinds of lives we lead.

More than two millennia ago, the Delphic Oracle told us to “know ourselves.” Socrates told us, Jesus of Nazareth told us, Siddhartha Gautama told us, Laoze told us, they keep telling us to know who we are, a process of knowing that goes on for your whole life. Know yourself: — and in the era of consumer capitalism, that means know how you spend your time and money.

Know yourself, or: Account for yourself. It may be more pleasant to walk the labyrinth that your congregation has laid out in the grassy slope beside your building, but you will know less of yourself than if you sit down with a spread sheet. And you better add your appointment calendar, because time is money whether you are producing or consuming. Mind you, I don’t keep accounts of my money that are accurate down to the last half penny, nor accounts of my time that are accurate down to the last minute of billable hours. But I do keep accounts.

My accounts show much of time is spent at work. I also spend time with family and close friends, read, and take long walks, none of which requires me to spend much in the way of money. That makes this time countercultural; that is, time spent in acts which counter the culture surrounding me. Time spent with my congregation counters cultural trends, too. When I used to sell building materials for a living, the time I spent in Sunday services was time when I could not increase my commission, and time when no one could call me to place an order. Giving money to your congregation is profoundly counter cultural. Why give money to a congregation when you have nothing to show for it, no product to show off in your home? Why give money to a congregation when you spend so little time there, an hour or two a week on average? From the point of view of consumer capitalism, giving money to a congregation is profoundly irrational, because your money is neither producing nor consuming anything at all.

I want to unbalance my account books. I want to show a deep deficit on the balance sheet which displays how I spend my money and my time; either that, or an outrageous surplus. I plan to carefully divert funds away from what I’m supposed to consume, and if I’m caught in the embezzlement, I will claim that I no longer use Generally Accepted Accounting Practices, but a newer technique, Generally Accepted Spirituality Practices. I will justify this to any outside financial auditors by proving that spiritual accounting follows its own accepted practices. Forget what the false gurus and the confused New Age leaders tell you: you can’t consume spirituality by purchasing a book, or a weekend retreat, or even membership in your church. If someone tells you that, find someone else to audit your accounts. Find someone who knows that spiritual books only balance when you’re dead. Life, and growth, requires a huge deficit or surplus (which may be the same thing), and nothing in the way of reserves.

Consumer capitalism woos us with promises of safety. If you buy enough, if you earn enough, then you will be safe. That’s why the old prairies, and the oak savannah, have been covered by upscale housing developments and shopping malls. We do not feel safe in oak savannah where something might lurk behind those trees. We do not feel safe when the wind sweeps across unbroken prairies bearing blizzards and tornadoes. Far safer to divide up that space with houses and malls. Western civilization first made Geneva, Illinois, feel safe in the 1830’s when we killed off the wolves that roamed the prairies, and the humans (whom we Westerners called “Indians”) that lived along the rivers and in the oak savannah.

Too much of what passes for spirituality tries to provide a that same feeling of safety. Those of us who live in central North America like to import our spirituality from the Celtic world, or from the Native American peoples who once lived on the Great Plains, or from the European versions of Christianity. It’s easy and pleasant to use someone else’s tamed spirituality. I suspect we’d be better off with our own, wilder spirituality. Why steal from Europe, or Africa, or indigenous peoples from other parts of North America? We can no more separate our spirituality from the culture in which we are embedded, we can no more separate our spirituality from the place in which we live, than than a fish can separate itself from the water in which it swims and breathes.

But we find it far more pleasant to import a medieval Christian labyrinth that we can walk in pleasant weather, than to walk the ten blocks to work through downtown Geneva, Illinois, every day even when it’s freezing cold and snowing, or dreadfully hot and humid. Far more pleasant to pay for a weekend escape where I get to participate in a genuine Native American sweat lodge which has even been authorized by some tribal government, than to immerse myself in the realities of consumer capitalism, which has not been authorized by anyone in particular but rather simply is. But I am not a medieval Christian or Native American, no more than I’m a Celt, or a Sufi dervish for that matter. These fantasy worlds, these fantasy spiritualities, seem pleasant at first, but because they are fantasies and not reality, you have to keep consuming more and more of them in order for them to keep working. Far better to face up to who I really am.

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