What One Simple Meal Taught Me About the Vicious Cycle of Consumption

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I didn't do much for Lent this year. As anyone who's followed the whining over at my personal blog knows, 2013 has already brought me a veritable cornucopia of opportunities for detachment from worldly pleasures and redemptive suffering, so I knew better than to push myself to try to take on much more. However, as proof that God blesses even the most minuscule efforts of his weakest children, some of my smallest sacrifices from this season have borne more fruit than the much larger ones I undertook in previous years. In fact, despite my inability to "do" much at all, I'm coming out of this Lent with a renewed perspective on my relationship with God -- and the things I tend to put before it.

Here's an example from last week:

Pregnancy has limited the amount of fasting I can do in terms of forgoing food this Lent, but I occasionally ate very simple meals as an alternative to a traditional fast. One afternoon I finished my lunch of fresh fruit with a leftover piece of meat, and when I went to clean up after myself, I stopped short. It was so easy! At my place at the table sat only a small plate, a glass of water, and a napkin. The plate and glass were so clean that I was able to put them back in the cupboard with only a quick rinse, and after I used the napkin to whisk away two small crumbs, the area was clean again.

When I compared it to the previous day's lunch, the difference was striking. The day before, I'd concocted a meal designed specifically to please my tastebuds to the maximum degree possible: My large plate was sticky with the sauce I'd used to smother the huge piece of meat; I'd melted butter and drizzled it over the heaps of roasted veggies, and cooked rice to soak up the excess; I'd added some favorite cheeses that come wrapped in red wax; I'd filled my milk glass so full that some spilled out onto the table; and I couldn't resist throwing in a fruit roll-up from the kids' snack stash. When I stood from my place after that meal, I'd left a mess. The table was splattered with sauce and milk; the sticky dinner plate needed a good run through the dishwasher, as did the bowl I'd used to melt the butter; the fruit roll-up wrapper sat crumpled next to the spilled milk; grains of rice were scattered across the table and the chair; and bits of red wax from the cheese had already been smashed into the linoleum on the floor. Cleaning it all up required two fresh paper towels and more than a few squirts of 409.

Blindly following my urge for tasty food led not only to eating more than I needed to, but it meant that I consumed more in other ways as well: My decadent meal created more trash and mess than the simple one. It took significantly more time to eat, as well as the extra time and products used to clean it up. On top of that, it used a whole lot more energy to digest the Sumo-wrestler portions I'd consumed, which wiped me out for the rest of the afternoon.

It was one of those moments where fragments of observations that had been floating around in the back of my mind finally came to the forefront, and coalesced into one crystal clear idea: Consumption always leads to more consumption. As I walked around pondering this realization, the contrasting images of the two meals vivid in my memory, I began to see that this principle is true in every area of life.

I opened up my closet, stuffed with at least twice as many clothes as I need, and noticed how much space it all takes up (which makes me wonder how much of my mortgage is going to clutter storage). All the excess stuff sucks up my time too, in the form of seconds wasted each morning playing "needle in the haystack" to find the one thing I would actually wear, not to mention the full day it's going to take if I ever want to get this junk organized. And I'm sure I've wasted plenty of money buying new items I could do without, because I forgot about sweaters and shirts and pants that are floating around the periphery of my sartorial landfill.

When I went downstairs and saw the sea of toys that would take the better part of an hour to clean up, I thought of a friend who is careful to make sure that her children have a small number of toys that they really love, and it occurred to me that her family's clean-up time must be a fraction of ours. I glanced around at all my little impulse purchases on counters and shelves throughout the house, considering that each of them takes up space and has to be ordered and cleaned. I remembered when my husband and I briefly owned an expensive car when we were first married, and recalled how it not only drained our finances, but also our time and our mental energy as we had to put so much effort into keeping it in tip-top condition.

To paraphrase a comment tech millionaire Graham Hill recently made after drastically downsizing his lavish lifestyle, I came to see that if you're not careful, the things you consume can end up consuming you.

This is not to say, of course, that I now think that all consumption is bad or that we're all supposed to live like Carthusian monks; there's certainly a place in the Catholic life for feasting and enjoying material comforts. My big Lenten realization wasn't that consuming is always bad, but, rather, that we should consume intentionally. It's one thing to devour and clean up after the huge, messy meal as an intentional gesture of taking delight in the gift of good food; it's another if it's an unthinking act done out of blind obedience to base urges. And just as it's true that consumption always leads to more consumption, the opposite is true too: When we make the tough choices to cut things out of our lives that we don't really want or need, we free up all sorts of related resources (time, space, money, energy) to devote to the things that really matter.