I’m an electric razor guy. I don’t care what people say, I get a close shave with an electric razor (ask Susie if you don’t believe me), and I don’t have to worry about shaving cream. But more important, I don’t want to put a blade to my neck that early in the morning. However, the down side of the electric razor is that once a year you’re supposed to replace the blades and foil (that thin piece of metal with the holes in it that your beard hairs go through to get cut). And since I’m… shall we say… “hyper-organized,” I put it on my calendar. I originally got my razor for Christmas, so now it’s time to get the replacements. Sounds simple, right? But guess what – no stores carry them. There’s such a proliferation of different brands and models that no store wants to hold all that stock. I tried them all: Osco, Target, Walgreens, CVS, you name it. So I’ve already spent who knows what on gas. OK, no problem, I’ll get it on the internet. After surfing around for almost an hour (what is my time worth on an hourly basis?), I finally found the blades and foil separately. Long story short (I know, too late…), with the shipping, it would cost me over $55. So do you see what’s happening here? It now costs more to buy the replacement blades and foil than it costs to buy a new electric razor. So I said to myself, “Screw ‘em. I’m not playing their game any more!” When I can’t get a good shave from my razor any more, I’m just going to throw it out and get a new one. My electric razor is now a disposable electric razor.
That was a very freeing moment. I no longer have to put this on my calendar. But there’s also something about this that bothers me. Yeah, the obvious thing is that as more and more things become disposable, we’re turning the earth into one big landfill. But there’s something deeper than this that’s also bothersome – I just can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe the increasing disposability says something about the direction society is going. Are we getting more callous and careless? After all, a bunch of good people worked hard to make that razor, so can it really be right just to throw it out after only a couple years of use? This goes for a lot of things. The TV in our bedroom just died. It’s one of the higher end models from before the days of flat screens and LCD TVs. It weighs about 200 pounds, and it’s going in the garbage. What else are we supposed to do? You can’t replace the picture tube. Thank God for the garbage collectors – all I have to do is get the dumb thing to the curb, and the next day it will be gone – out of my life forever (giving me all the excuse I need to buy a new TV). So that’s another 200 pounds in the landfill.
But on the other hand… the growing ease with which we throw things away keeps us from accumulating stuff – makes it easier to let go. In a weird way, disposability encourages an almost Franciscan detachment from things. Maybe there’s an up side to this disposability thing…
I’ve written in Spiritual Blueprint about streamlining one’s life by getting rid of clutter. But as I say in the book, the point is not to go to the other extreme. I don’t advocate becoming a minimalist. Part of living intentionally is making conscious decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. And of course, what we get rid of doesn’t always have to be thrown away. Sometimes we can find a good home for the things we’re done with. But the goal is to find that certain balance: keeping the things that mean something to us, but getting rid of the things that don’t. Now, this one’s tough for me. I save a lot of things because I don’t think I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of them, or they still seem too nice to go in the trash, or because I think I might need them later. But I almost never do. So what am I saving it all for? How do I find the middle way between saving everything, and throwing everything out? WWGD? (What would Goldilocks do?)
When I was a kid, there was a trunk in my grandmother’s attic. It was filled with a bunch of my uncle’s old things: report cards, model airplanes, awards, stuff like that. I used to sneak up to the attic and go through all that stuff. It seemed to define my uncle’s life, or at least his childhood, in a way that fascinated me. I think I was wondering what would define my life, and I actually started planning what things I would put in my trunk. Now I actually have TWO trunks in my parents’ basement with all my old stuff in them. Stamp collection. Old souvenirs. Pictures. Reel to reel tapes from my first recordings (yeah, I actually made an “album” once – on vinyl). Why am I saving all that junk? Maybe part of me hopes my nieces and nephews will go through it when I’m not there, and they will be fascinated with my life. Maybe someday my grandchildren see it, and it will mean that somehow the things I did will outlive me. In the big picture, I’m in the middle of life, staring the second half of life in the face. And part of the task of the second half of life is making sense of the first half.
That’s what it comes down to, making sense of our lives so that we can face our own mortality (or at least getting older) and reassure ourselves that we haven’t wasted the best years. And we often define our lives by what we’ve accumulated along the way. This is not all bad: we win awards, earn degrees, gain friends. Heck, I’ve still got my old karate trophies in my basement. Somehow, a guy my age with karate trophies on his mantle would just be sad. And even if I wanted to put them on the mantle, Susie wouldn’t let me. So they gather dust in the basement. What will happen to these trophies, the symbols and proof of my erstwhile ass-kicking ability?
It’s been said you never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul. You can’t take it with you. The things we leave behind will go to someone else. Even our bodies will become something else. There is a certain conservation of matter, it’s as if God created all the elements in the beginning, and now they just go from one thing to another. The early Christian apologists of the second century even talked about how God can put decayed human bodies back together, like a jigsaw puzzle (actually they said mosaic) when the time comes for the resurrection. I guess the point is that the things we’re done with continue to have a life of their own – we don’t need them, and they don’t need us. Maybe they’ll sit in a trunk until they can be appreciated by someone else. I know, I know – if it goes in a landfill that’s bad, but isn’t a major part of Chicago built on a landfill? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should ignore our stewardship of creation. But maybe disposability is not all bad.
So maybe the conclusion I’m coming to is that it’s ok for some things to be disposable. Electric razors, old model planes, even old karate trophies. Maybe it’s best not to try to define ourselves by these things because they are no longer part of us. Maybe sometimes holding on to things is too much looking back, and not enough looking forward. One of my favorite Scripture passages is Philippians 3:13-14, “Brothers and Sisters, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” After all, as Christians we believe we are children of an eternal kingdom.
Other things should not be disposable. Like people. Family, friends, colleagues. We do define ourselves by our relationships with them, and by the ways that knowing them has changed us. These things we keep, and will keep for eternity. Clement of Alexandria (late second century) said that the reason love is the greatest (I Corinthians 13) is that love is eternal. So we should hold on to the eternal things. The rest is disposable.
My conclusions are tentative – I invite comments, feedback, disagreements, and other perspectives.