Last winter I faced a dilemma that I think is a common modern question: how can I both take care of my family and care for my family? What I mean is how can I wisely cultivate the resources I have to make sure that they are cared for materially and make sure they have enough love and attention from me?

It’s that old “work/life balance” that feels anxiously elusive. This is not materialistic or materialism, though it is bound up in material things – they have bodies that need food, shelter, and clothing, and that usually translates into a need for money. But not always, and sometimes we can forgo money and bring more of what our family needs – we can bring ourselves.

Here was the dilemma: We were running low on firewood and a winter storm was coming. I either needed to buy wood or cut it from a tree that fell some years ago (meaning it was dry enough to use now).

But for 80-100 bucks I could buy the same amount and even have it delivered. To go get the wood I would have to sacrifice hours in the day that could, in theory, be used to make money. But that money would need to be spent on firewood. There would be a surplus though, since I could probably make more money than was needed for buying wood. Then I could get them something else they needed, right?

The difference is that the moneymaking work did not involve the family, but the firewood gathering would. Going to get it would involve working with them outside. The only physically measurable profit for the day would be the wood, but that translates into real value for us because we heat only with wood in the winter. Not to mention that it was uniting activity that was not amusement, but had meaning and gravity.

But it was still a hard decision. I think it was hard because my habit of thinking and acting is modern, meaning I tend to think in areas of dollar-amount, and not in the many other ways we can discern value. Even though the wood gathering would give me exercise, fresh air, time and memories with my family, and the satisfaction of tangible work, I still was leaning toward making money. Even though I consciously try to question it, I still have that habit of mind.

I think this is understandable, and I think most of us do it. We live in a post-industrial and technological society with an economy based on consumption and investment, meaning everything is monetized and making more money is usually better than making less, and we value the monetary profit over the craft or thing itself. The greatest danger of this type of economy is that it has no “end” – “making money” is not the same thing as making shoes, because you never really know when you’re done. Aristotle called this an “unnatural economy,” and St. Thomas Aquinas warned of having too much “trade” (making money with money), because it naturally tends toward greed and endless drive.  

The shoemaker of yesterday becomes the investor of today, and instead of making shoes he invests in the shoe market (because everyone has feet!), and when that is profitable and stable he moves on to the next market that has a hole to make more money to fill the bottomless hole that is our desire for wealth. He no longer values shoemaking itself, but the industry of shoes. Working this hard he wears a hole in his shoes, but he has forgotten how to repair it. But don’t worry – he knows who to pay to get them fixed…

Wealth is not bad, if its true end is for the good and care of our family. But it is not good to not care for your family, meaning you have to be very careful not to fall into the habit of thinking only or even mostly of how to make money. This is the habit of thinking I felt deeply when I was facing the wood dilemma. If we spend 8-10 hours a day thinking in monetized profit and loss, it’s hard to turn that mode of thinking off when we are with what matters most.

Without romanticizing it a bit, we know for certain that prior to the industrial revolution, economies were more local and family-based.  Our collective memory still values this when, for example, a giant company advertises being “family owned and operated,” which may be more or less true. Our economy comes with a huge swath of benefits which the wise question but don’t easily dismiss, but it seems wisdom begs that we at least consider our losses and gains in our “unnatural economy”. The primary gain of work today is more security; the primary loss is less family. What once united us now divides us.

Hopefully, if you are awake to that reality you choose to no longer be placid about it. Billions of dollars are being spent in creating an economy that sucks you into a consumer mindset, which inevitably creates the desire for more money to answer the desire created by money. Do not forget your true ends and what is the better part of life. And remember, Mary chose the better part. It’s an act of the will.

I changed my mind about the wood, got up a little earlier with the family, and ended up splitting it with my kids. It was a joyful time of work with my family, with a real and tangible outcome (warmth!) that we all enjoyed. It drew us together, drew us close to nature through which God speaks quite clearly, and it gave us some sweat on the brow. And none of it involved a taxable exchange. Seems worth the investment to me.