“There will be no poor among you…” – Deut. 15:4
Last night I was stranded in a Mercedes E Class in the parking lot of my favorite vegan restaurant. It was the most expensive car in the lot by tens of thousands of dollars. Other than the new, sleek black Benz with the dead battery that I was sitting in, the newest car in the lot looked to be a late 90’s Subaru splattered with lefty bumper-stickers and a license plate that read “MS YOGA”.
I called Mercedes’ Roadside Assistant. Katie answered.
“Mercedes Benz Roadside Assistance, this is Katie. Can I help you?”
“I’m in a loaner care from Mercedes Benz of Encino,” I told her, and then I explained that the cool car I had been driving for two days simply would not start.
“Oh, darn,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and I believed her. She was upset on my behalf.
Sure there are fancier cars, but you have to understand that everyone inside the Follow Your Heart Cafe is perpetually working on being eco-everything, organic-everything, and decidedly against conspicuous consumption like luxury cars. Though there is a prominently hung quote by His Holiness, the 14th Dali Lama extolling the wisdom of tolerance just inside the doors, nonetheless, I can confirm more than a handful of off-put faces through the restaurants’ windows. I felt I had two choices: A) Try and defend my predicament to every quizzical customer who entered or exited, or B) I could keep my head down and pretend to be on the phone.
I chose B. For the record, I waited just fifteen minutes, but that was long enough to reflect just how it is that I ended up stranded in front of the Follow Your Heart Cafe.
Here is the short version: My teenager crashed our Honda Civic – Nobody hurt. Thank God! The insurance company considered it totaled, wrote us a check, and I bought another Civic, a used one, from our local Mercedes dealer. They assured me that a nice, little old lady had traded it in for a new Mercedes. I drove it around, negotiated the deal, drank two free Diet Cokes from their lobby cooler and then I drove off with it. Two days later, my new-used Civic wouldn’t start. I called AAA to jump the car and while I waited I called the Benz place. “Will you fix it.” Long pause. Please, please, please. “Yes, drive it in.” Yes! I brought it in, they gave me a Diet Coke, but after twenty minutes they informed me that they couldn’t fix it for two days, so they offer me their loaner car in the meantime, a Mercedes E350.
The first place I drove to was my kids’ Jewish private school. My black Mercedes looked at home. As I step out of the car, I smile about the surprise my boys would get when they saw the car. I was still smiling as the driver in the Mercedes next to mine also stepped out. It was one of the school’s board members, and I’m pretty sure he sits on the financial aid committee that I’ve appealed to every year. He wasn’t smiling.
The next place I went was home. My in-laws were there visiting. Let me quote my favorite part of the conversation between my father-in-law and mother-in-law:
“Those Nazis make great cars.”
“What? I’d never buy one, but it’s a great car.”
As I sat in the Follow Your Heart parking lot I realized, that, “hey man” (if you’ve ever visited this retro hippie joint, you understand sounding like The Dude from the Big Lebowski and saying things to yourself like “hey man”). “Hey man, you’re lucky,” I said into my phone to no one but myself. “These are First World Problems.”
Of course it’s true. John Edwards turned out to be a well quaffed liar and cheater, but he was right, there are “two Americas”. In a recent Times’ opinion, Charles Blow cited two studies in this regard:
“From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” -Emmanuel Saez, professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent. – The Pew Research Center, April 2013.
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land…” -Duet 15:11
Soon enough the tow truck Katie sent was behind me in the lot. I liked the driver, Henry, right away.
“Trouble with your car, Boss?” He said as we shook hands along side the beautiful dead tank.
We talked for the entire fifteen minutes it took him to jack it up, turn it backwards, and fill out the paperwork. I explain the whole crazy scenario to Henry. Tried to buy a used Civic but end up with a Mercedes. Henry said his wife drives a Civic, but that he drives a 68 VW Bug when not in his tow truck. “It got me back and forth from Compton twice this past weekend. No worries with that car,” he said.
I had a great time driving that car for a few days, even with the trouble it caused me. I was also happy to see the Benz hanging backwards off of Henry’s tow truck.
“Who is truly rich? The one who is happy with what he has.” – Pirkei Avot 4:1
There are at least two Americas. Some of us are duel citizens.
Hair Dye as History
While I have never used hair dye myself, I certainly watch my share of TV, and so I know the ad slogans for two of the most famous hair coloring systems — Miss Clairol and L’Oreal. What I didn’t know — and what author Malcolm Gladwell explains in his essay “True Colors” — was how those two slogans reflected the radical changes in the way women viewed themselves in post-war America.
“Does She or Doesn’t She?”
Gladwell’s essay starts by introducing us to Shirley Polykoff, a copy-writer who was charged with finding a way to advertise Miss Clairol’s brand-new, one-step, twenty-minute hair coloring system. Polykoff had personally experienced the potential humiliation of people whispering about whether she dyed her hair or not — the first time she went to meet her potential mother-in-law, she could imagine her wondering, “Does she color her hair, or doesn’t she?”
So as Polykoff set about writing a slogan for Miss Clairol, she realized that along with the choice to dye their hair, women were also looking for ways to minimize people wondering about whether they dyed their hair or not.
Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde, she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. ‘Only her hairdresser knows for sure.’ For Nice ‘n Easy, Clairol’s breakthrough shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, ‘The closer he gets, the better you look’… (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 79)
“Does she or doesn’t she?” is really a slogan that is focuses on what all those “other people” might think. While women certainly were starting to get more choice in their lives in the 1950’s — as evidenced by the fact that they could now color their hair quickly and easily — there was still significant societal pressure to keep that fact hidden. They still cared about what other people thought — and talked about.
“Because I’m Worth It”
Nearly twenty years later, second-wave feminism had taken hold. And when it came to hair dye, the focus was now not on what other people might think, but instead, on what women wanted for themselves.
Look at how copy-writer Ilon Specht created the slogan for L’Oreal’s Nice ‘n Easy:
[M]y feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for [others...so] in five minutes I wrote [the ad copy]:…’I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m worth it.’ (Gladwell, 87)
“Because I’m worth it” has a radically different feel to it than “Does she or doesn’t she?” It’s a much more assertive statement, and it’s much more self-focused. It’s about what the woman herself wants, rather than what other people might think.
Gladwell sums up the difference between the slogans like this: “[Ultimately, Clairol's] commercials were “other-directed” — they were about what the group was saying or what a husband might think. [Whereas L'Oreal's] line was what a woman says to herself”(Gladwell, 88).
Why We Buy Things
There is a very real tension between buying things for ourselves versus buying things for others to see. I’ll share an example from my own life. I consider myself an environmentalist — I try to recycle, turn off the water when I don’t use it, and have installed compact fluorescent bulbs in my home. But what I’m most proud of is my Honda Civic Hybrid. And it says on big letters on the bumper “HYBRID.” Yes, I’m happy to be helping the environment, but it’s also a public statement I want to make — people now know I drive a hybrid.
It’s the same with most of the other things we buy — yes, we want function. But there is always a small part of us that wants to send a message to others. Whether it’s the books on the coffee table, the furniture in our homes, or the cars we drive, our “stuff” isn’t just for us to enjoy — consciously or not, it’s also designed for others to see and to cause them to think about us in a certain way.
Jacob’s “Message” to Esau
There’s a short passage in Genesis where Jacob uses his “stuff” to send a message to his brother Esau. Let’s take a look at what he says.
Of all the characters in Genesis, Jacob was once of the richest. How did he get so rich? It really started when he stole two things from Esau — his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau was the older brother, and in Biblical times, the “birthright” entitled the oldest sibling to get twice as much of the inheritance as the younger siblings. Jacob was able to convince Esau to sell that to him, so Jacob then was then the sibling who received a double portion. Then, as their father Isaac was dying, he wanted to bless Esau. But a”blessing” in the Bible wasn’t just something along the lines of, “May you have strength.” No, a “blessing” in the Bible meant that God would bless you with material riches. And Jacob was able to manipulate his father so that he would also get that blessing instead of Esau, as well.
Esau, understandably, wasn’t so happy about that. In fact, he was so enraged that he wanted to kill Jacob. Their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s house, where Jacob was able to work for twenty years, and perhaps because God had indeed blessed him, gained an enormous amount of wealth.
In Genesis 32, Jacob is about to meet Esau for the first time in twenty years. He’s a little nervous about what Esau might do — will he forgive him? Or will he kill him? So he sends some messengers to Esau to find out what Esau is thinking, and also to give Esau a message.
But what is the message Jacob sends? It appears in Genesis 32:5-6: “I have stayed with [our uncle] Laban until now. And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I send this message to you [literally, 'my lord'], that I may find favor in your sight.”
The message is not, “I’m sorry for having stolen your birthright.” It’s not, “What have you been up to in these last twenty years, Esau?” The message Jacob seems to send to Esau is simply, “Look at me! I’m rich!”
The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming with four hundred men. That terrifies Jacob, so he asks God for help, and in his prayer, he says, “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses, and of all the truth, which You have shown to me [literally, 'Your servant'].” (Genesis 32:11) He does almost a complete 180 here, and feels like he is not “worthy” of all the blessings God has shown him. Yes, he has his wealth. But he starts to wonder — is he worth it?
Are We “Worth” Our Possessions?
The message Jacob sends to Esau is a totally “other-directed” message — like the Miss Clairol ads, it’s designed to get someone else (here, it’s Esau) talking about him. You can just imagine Jacob hoping that Esau would see his riches and think, “Ooh, how did Jacob get all this stuff?”
But when Esau responds in a way that makes Jacob nervous, Jacob has to pray to God for help. And because Jacob’s message was so “other-directed” he couldn’t even be proud of himself for all he was able to acquire in Laban’s house. By starting off trying to prove to Esau just how rich he was, Jacob ends up saying, “I am unworthy.” It is very hard for us to imagine Jacob at this moment confidently looking at all his wealth and proclaiming, “I’m worth it!”
For us today, we buy things for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because we want others to talk. Sometimes it’s because we think we’re “worth” it. But in fact, neither outlook is the most helpful way to look at why we buy things. Since our money is one of our most precious resources, we need to explore: are we spending in ways that are consonant with our values? Not because “we’re worth it” or to get people to ask “does she or doesn’t she?” or to be able to say, “Look at all that I have acquired!” but rather, to be able to spend money in ways so that when we look back on our bank statements we can say, “I am proud of how I spent my money.”