For nearly two years, I've been facilitating a small book club at a retirement community near where I work. By "facilitating," I mean I mostly ask "what did you think of this month's book?" and let them go. It is almost always women, and there's really been two who are the core of the group. I've loved doing this and I love these women. They have become models of how to grow old. When I am in my 80s and 90s (should I live so long), I want to be like them, curious, involved, still engaged in what's new and now.
Today, we were choosing our next book, which takes place in the WWII siege o Leningrad. This led one woman, a doctor, to tell the story of hosting a Russian woman doctor some decades go. The Russian had survived Leningrad, and was bewildered by American abundance. In the American's home, the Russian would point at something and ask what something was, what it was for, many of them appliances that we take for granted. Like an oven. The American would explain what it was and how it was used. The Russian would, more often than not, reply, "That's nice, but not necessary."
This came to me like a word from the Lord. As I begin looking for work in anticipation of losing my current job at the end of January, it was somewhat ironic that I would hear the difference between "nice" and "necessary" in a retirement community located in the Galleria area of Houston. This is the nice place to retire, in some prime real estate. People who have to make regular distinctions between "nice" and "necessary" don't get to retire here. But then, God has demonstrated throughout history a keen sense of irony.
But I digress. We had a fun conversation about what was necessary, most of them telling stories of lean years---they couldn't always afford to retire in the Galleria neighborhood---and the importance of remembering that there is a distinction. The extremes of the Russian woman, who found an oven and a knife rack unnecessary, were acknowledged as, indeed, accurate. So much that we take for granted is not necessary.
When the Russian was leaving the States, she told the American doctor that when she got home, she would talk about her trip like going to see exotic animals in Africa and that her friends would not believe her.
I will never know what it was like to be in Leningrad in WWII. Still, the first thing I thought of as we talked was the difference between what I grew up with in rural Texas and what I can walk past in the Galleria. A single blouse on a clearance rack can cost more than all the clothes I'm wearing at any given time. I watch people in the Galleria wandering around, looking for something "nice," not because they need it but because they can. Surely a $500 handbag is never necessary. It may even stretch the definition of "nice."
And as I wander around the Galleria, marveling at these things, it occurs to me that our entire economy is built around people buying "nice." If not the entire economy, a huge honking part of it. We're constantly hearing how the government is trying to figure out how to get us into the stores and spend and get the economy moving again.
But if we're not spending, perhaps it's a clue that we don't need as much as we think we do. Doesn't it?
Of course, there are people going without essentials. The worst crime in this country is that there are hungry people in all our abundance. But still, what we really need to get this economy going again is to get more people into the mall, not because they need anything, but because they'll browse and find something nice to buy.
Surely basing a national economy on this sort of casual display of disposable income is a justice issue.
But again, I digress. Or maybe not. All I know is that as I look at unemployment or underemployment, I'm going to be looking even closer at what is "nice but not necessary." I, who own no car or working television and therefore already live out of step with the larger culture, may have to realize that I still live in opulence compared to some places in the world, even some places in this city.
Certainly compared to a survivor of the siege at Leningrad. And I give thanks for the witness of the woman who, across decades, brought me this prophetic word: that's nice, but not necessary.