In Ebensburg, a small town in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, a small museum holds a couple of artifacts that once belonged to my great-great grandfather. A couple of heavy irons which would have been heated on a wood burning stove, are on display. These solid tailoring tools had helped him smooth and crease the cloth of his finished projects. John Dougherty, who was born in 1792 somewhere in Ireland, had probably learned his tailoring profession there.
Migrating to North America in his late teens, he made his way to Ebensburg which less that a generation before him had been on the furthest edge of a colonial frontier. It still had that feel when John arrived, according to accounts travelling down the generations. Wild game supplemented the diet of the farmers and trades people alike struggling to make a go of it there in the log homes they had hewn from the local forests.
A former Russian prince turned missionary priest, Demetrius Gallitzin, who had been once been cradled in the arms of Catherine the Great, married John and his bride Mary. A new start in life had beckoned aristocrat and commoners alike in this region. Tailoring provided the income needed for John and Mary to raise their eight children. Tales of John’s tailor shop always being filled with the songs from his native land or of after-supper card games with friends played on his cutting table are still told by his descendants. John was well into his 90s when he died after a rich, full life.
Each subsequent generation has most assuredly been more materially prosperous than the previous one. However, I certainly can’t see having more things as guaranteeing his off spring a real improvement in the quality of their lives over his. Somehow each generation over the last century has been convinced that more things automatically translate into a better life somehow. This myth has to be debunked.
Every year since 1992, today, the day after American Thanksgiving, has been proclaimed by anti-consumer activists as Buy Nothing Day. As the Adbuster’s website proclaims (http://www.adbusters.org) “we will abstain en masse – not only from holiday shopping, but from all the temptations of our five-planet lifestyles.” Somehow we must come to realize that the mass consumption society which we have been seduced by for the last century is both unsustainable and unjust. While it may provide us with an increasing quantity of more than often, needless things, it does not assure us a quality of life.
Father Jim Bleackley of Sacred Heart Cathedral here in Whitehorse shared a brief Advent reflection with me yesterday. He sees people hooked into our consumer culture frantically rushing around buying Christmas presents with money they don’t have. Fr. Jim puts it very plainly instead of presents, we have to find ways to be present to others. We must decide how we will use our time leading up to Christmas: busyness or being with our friends, relatives or people in need in our communities.
My ancestor John Dougherty came to North America 199 years ago seeking a new life. Today we have to find a new way of living too. Will we keep consuming things until there is nothing left or will we come to understand that we have to put people first?
Quantity or quality of life, which is it?
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.