How do we balance extravagance with stewardship in life?
Jaqui Eicher March 2016
The question really is: what is it worth to you? Anytime you give of your time, energy or money. Is the cost worth it to you in some way that makes the balance tip toward the extravagance, the expense?
Not long before Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary stood at Jesus’ feet and wept, her tears washing his feet. She wiped them with her own hair and then poured a most expensive, red colored perfume on them. Judas and Lazarus were also present at this event. Lazarus had recently been raised from the dead by Jesus. Judas loudly complained about Mary’s waste. “Wouldn’t it be better to sell the fragrant oil and give the money to the poor?” But Jesus told Judas to leave Mary alone; that she did a good thing. In my mind, this story points out the difference between the “proper thing to do” and the “necessary for the heart” thing to do (the unexpected, beautiful thing to do).
During my past years as a human I have collected a few stories that help me as I struggle with balancing extravagance with stewardship in my daily life. Every one of these stories is kept safely in my “pocket of important life lessons” and has helped shape me into a stronger person today than I was twenty years ago.
I’ll begin with the oldest of the stories, though it’s still as ponderous today as it was in 1993. While attending Western Oregon University as a junior in college, I sat in a class with my most admired professor in the front leading a student discussion about this very question, though it was framed very specifically: why do people in poverty, sometimes without a home and panhandling, smoke? The habit is expensive and if people can’t afford basic human needs, what right do they have to panhandle for cigarettes? There wasn’t even a question in my mind about this. My professor, however, had a different view and he shared it. If one small comfort could be afforded someone with little else to look forward to in life, it is the person mentioned above. What harm is it doing? This view baffled my naive outlook, but it shook my understanding of the world enough to leave a lasting impression on me. I think of a person with very little beauty around them finding the beauty in a single cigarette, warmly comforting them in body and mind for a short time.
Next, a story from last week. A man who goes in and out of housing security boards his pet at the veterinary hospital where I work. He gets a fair discount. He can’t afford his own housing and yet he comes to visit his pet and brings her canned food while he visits. He lives for the beauty of his animal companion and dreams of having a place to live that allows her to come home to him as his dear companion. Is it financially wise for him to willingly ask for another mouth to feed? Is it beautiful to have an unconditionally loving companion to share your days with?
One year ago I lived in a wonderful and small apartment and had the very BEST landlords in the entire world! Also, the rent was the best anyone could hope for, and was financially in my best interest. But I had lived there for about a year and was beginning to feel the walls closing in around me. In a tour of other places my landlords had for rent, I opened my heart and said that I worried what others might think of me: out of stable work, but seeking a larger apartment which would cost more money. Wouldn’t they think I was being greedy and unwise? My very wise landlord said calmly, “I’ve heard voices like this in my life and I tend not to listen to them.” The idea that I could choose to listen or not listen to voices around me was a new one and it struck me as some of the sagest advice I had ever received up to that point in my life. In this moment, I knew what I needed in order to survive and it was an extravagance of more space. And this choice to move to a larger apartment has ended up being worth it so far. It has afforded me a comfort and ease that the other place could not.
During the past two years I have slowly been changing careers and entire lives, it seems. I am in unfamiliar territory without a map or compass, which leaves me feeling lost on most days. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with this feeling, but some days it still feels mighty scary. At the age of 46 I am beginning again in every way, but the most profound of ways is in wage. Now I feel lucky to have a minimum wage job because it’s full time, with benefits. There were months when I didn’t think I had enough to pay the rent (another benefit of having an caring landlord). Another sage piece of advice I received during this time came from a friend. I had been talking with him about how worried I felt about this new territory. His response was, “Enjoy this. Freedom and security never come at the same time.” Because of his advice, I roused myself to invest my free time into developing my love of art. It is thanks to this friend’s advice that I am now a better artist than I was two years ago. I hungered for beauty in the dark time of my life. When it was hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, I gave myself jobs to do that brought me joy—painting. The past two years has been my most prolific period for art and I have enjoyed it.
Thinking of Mary at Jesus’ feet, pouring fragrant oil as if it had no cost makes me think that maybe she hungered for beauty too. Here was a man who had given her so much. To show him how priceless he was to her family, she felt free to lavish him with her heart just like the man who lavishes his cat with food he can’t even afford for himself, and like me who lavishly lives in an apartment with extra space.