Taking the Downward Mobility Plunge

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A few years back while living in England, I walked in late to a staff meeting and was immediately greeted with the question, “Do you have a TV??” I said, hesitantly, “well…yes.” Looks of disappointment went around the table. “Almost unanimous. We were just talking among ourselves and discovered that none of the rest of us has a TV in the house.” (Oh, those British intellectuals.)

I answered, only half-jokingly, “Well, if I didn’t have a TV, how am I supposed to keep up with the football scores?” (I could have been snarky and answered, “If y’all don’t have TVs, how do you know which direction to point your living room furniture?”)

Fast forward a decade or so, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge. The no-TV plunge. But it’s not just for the sake of not having a TV. Instead, it’s part of the bigger “downward mobility” plunge I’ve been thinking about for some time.

A year or so ago, Andrew Oswalt talked about a practical goal any person could undertake, as a step toward evading the grip of consumerism and materialism which clearly pervades our culture right now (and which inevitably will get a grip on us, if we don’t actively take steps to counter it). The goal—the challenge, really—is to identify one item you had planned to purchase in the current year. Then, purposefully choose not to make that purchase, instead giving the money away that you would have spent on that item.

Really, it’s a fantastic way intentionally to become a bit less materialistic than we were the previous year. No matter how mature we already are, or how much growth we have yet to do, it’s a way to make progress. It’s a way to point tangibly to one way we’ve moved away from consumerism and toward virtues of temperance and self-control.

The item in question might be the new patio furniture, or the new cell phone, or the upgraded vacation. For my family, we decided on the TV. Well, we actually decided on our cable subscription. (We’ve kept the TV to watch DVDs.)

We’re saving quite a bit of money each month by not having a cable subscription. And of course, the money has to be given away to others, not kept for ourselves. That’s part of the exercise.

So far, it’s not been that bad of a struggle. I find I don’t have much time to watch cable TV these days anyway. Of course, it’s only been a week. And so far there haven’t been any major sports events to watch. (I think I’m probably going to spend a lot of time in front of my neighbor’s flatscreen during the Olympics this summer. I hope that’s not cheating.)

I can’t say that I suddenly feel like a monk, having shed all materialistic inclinations. But as one, tangible first step, I’m really glad I took this plunge. It’s a beginning point for me to think about the pull of materialism. It’s certainly not the ending point. But at least I’ll not play the role of the TV-hypnotized American if I’m ever at another English staff meeting.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

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