Learning the hard way thanks to thieves and friends
By Michelle Ferguson
I’ve moved on average once a year since I left home for college at the age of 18. In those first years, moving was not very difficult: I had only what would fill up a dorm room.
After graduating from college, I moved to Florida and had only what fit into my allotted luggage—of course I shipped all my books, my most prized possessions. That year I began to accumulate more. By the time I moved back to California to begin graduate school, I had purchased my first car and all my things fit into the back of a Toyota Matrix—good thing the seats fold down.
Next were moves within California—Davis to Sacramento, within Sacramento, Sacramento to Shafter, Shafter to Fresno and then the move a year ago from an apartment to a house in Fresno. These moves included U-Hauls, pick-up trucks and trailers, plus a roommate with her own accumulated possessions.
I am well aware that I don’t have as much stuff as families with kids or people who have lived in one spot for a long time. When I moved a year ago I had just turned 28 and had never earned enough money to have much discretionary income.
Signs of adulthood
So even though the amount of stuff I’ve moved around every year has grown, I’ve never had the option of buying whatever I wanted. I cook with hand-me-down pots and pans and rely on the MB Biblical Seminary clothes closet and gifts from my family for work-appropriate attire. Even then, I’m glad that my office standard leans toward business casual rather than business formal.
The amount of stuff I own has often felt like a test of my adulthood. When I could fill a dorm room I was still a kid. When I could fill an apartment, I was a young adult. Last year when I moved into a house, I suddenly felt like a “real” adult. This is the natural progression of growing up, isn’t it? It is the image I’ve lived with since playing house with my miniature kitchen and stuffed animal guests.
Here’s the rub: At the same time I have been socially shaped to evaluate my adulthood according to my status of residence and possessions, I’ve been theologically shaped by the idea of simplicity. So when I moved into my house I felt “grown up,” but I also prided myself on having used cookware and not spending lots of money on all the things that could fill the new space in which I resided. I want to be seen as an adult, but I also want to be considered a good Mennonite Brethren steward.
And then—a month after moving in and a day before my renter’s insurance became active—my housemate and I came home from work and found our house ransacked. We had been burglarized! The robbers used our luggage to pack up what they wanted and carried it away in my car that had been in the driveway. All together we lost about $8,000 worth of possessions. And with no way to file an insurance claim, replacing items that were taken was not an option.
In one fell swoop two individuals violated space and possessions that have shaped my identity. I will feel this loss for the rest of my life. Personal and irreplaceable items aside, I have had to struggle with what it means to come home one day and find my computer, among other things, gone. My laptop contained everything I’ve ever written—journals from the last 15 years and college and seminary notes and papers—and six years worth of digital photographs.
I remember purchasing my first laptop. I couldn’t believe that I had saved $1,500. I had never paid that much for anything before. It was a mark of adulthood. I was becoming self-sufficient. I didn’t need my parents to make this considerable purchase for me; I could do it myself. Four years later I upgraded to a newer, faster, better laptop. Keeping up with technology further reinforced my feelings of independence.
And now it was gone. Years of saving, purchasing and caring for this treasured possession were worthless, blown away with a breath, up in smoke—carried away in a stolen vehicle
Then something else happened. My community of faith gave me a gift: $1,500. “Replace your laptop,” they said. “We cannot give you all that was lost, but replace your laptop.”
Miroslav Volf, author of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, explores the experience of giving and receiving a gift. Volf smacks me right in the face when he writes, “Gifts can also wound our pride. They can create a relationship of dependence or inferiority and an uncomfortable sense of a vague obligation. It’s often humiliating to receive.”
Why is it humiliating? Because receiving a gift undermines our sense of self in a world where “we’re set up mainly to sell and buy, not to give and receive.” Resonating with the discomfort of depending on others shone a light on the dissonance between my emotional reaction and my theological affirmation of community and human interdependence.
The gift I received touched me deeply. It both shattered my model of adulthood and allowed a healing paradigm of personhood to take root. This shift had been brewing within me theologically for years, but in this experience of loss and gift it took real shape in my life in a significant way.
I have realized that the narrative that largely pervades our consumer culture is one that shapes us to associate adulthood with our ability to independently consume. When we are young our families spoon-feed us, providing the house we live in and the toys we play with. We dream of the day when we can feed ourselves: Our teenage years and first jobs allow us to clumsily grab the spoon for ourselves.
Moving out on our own, we enter the world as if it were an all-you-can-eat buffet, hence the growing consumer debt especially among 20- and 30-somethings. The adult meter becomes a checklist of consumption: Residence? Check. Furniture for every room? Check. Place settings for 12? Check. Home theater system? Check. Car? Check. Weekend toys? Check. And out spits the meter reading, “Independent consumer = adult.”
Since the robbery, my journey has been one of learning and embracing a new story. This experience of loss and generosity has allowed that narrative to further speak into my life. The gift of my community made room for me to rest in the truth of my place at the table, a table where we all come to give and receive the communion given to us from God.
Michelle Ferguson, a 2002 graduate of Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University and a 2006 graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, is the MB Biblical Seminary registrar on the Fresno, Calif., campus. She attends College Community Church, Clovis, Calif., and serves on the church’s Adult Education Commission.
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