A Jar of Peanut Butter in a Box

estimated read time: 2 minutes

It was cold that night, and we were giving out donated socks and gloves, water bottles and fruit. Dim light from one, tired streetlamp puddled in the deep cracks and potholes around us. We stood silently, watching the door of the dilapidated warehouse across the street; we’d been warned it could contain “trouble.” (Of what sort we were left to imagine.) We were waiting for permission to walk around the building and into the back parking area, where some homeless men were staying.

After several long minutes, our group leader emerged and waved us back. We walked along a dirt path hidden between abandoned trailers, finally ducking under one that served as a gate of sorts. On the other side of the yard, four or five men were huddled around a fire they’d made in a rusty oil drum, holding their hands near the flames.

As I stood there—awkwardly, wondering what to do now that I’d given away what we’d come to give—one gentleman abruptly limped away from the fire, picked up a box, and brought it back to me. He smiled, and as he tilted the box toward me, he said, “Everything I have fits in here.” Although it surely contained more stuff, all I recall seeing is a jar of Skippy peanut butter. I must’ve just stood there, blinking at him and his possessions, because he soon shrugged his shoulders, put the box back on the concrete, and returned to the fire.

Later, as we made our way back to our warm cars that would soon deliver us safely to our comfortable homes, I tried to figure out why he was smiling. “It must be freeing to own so little,” I decided, as my eyes welled up. And then, immediately: “Really, Kelley? The man has no home, it’s 24-degrees outside, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you have too much stuff?” My cheeks, already red from the wind, ignited with hot shame.

Every Christmas season seems to trigger this memory. As I find myself standing in ever-longer checkout lines, as I dodge yet another frantic-looking woman at the mall who’s rushed out of a store without looking to see if someone’s walking in front of it, as I circle the Target parking lot again and again and again—I see his smile. I see the shrug of his shoulders. I see him walking away from me, shaking his head as though I’d missed the point.

I’m still embarrassed by my envy, but I’ve clung to the night’s lesson: Consumerism has claws. They sink into our flesh so slowly we don’t even realize we’re in pain… until we attempt to pull away.

It’s 11 days until Christmas, and at no other time is this lesson more difficult to embrace. Every year I declare, “We’re going simple this year, so don’t be expecting much.” And then I head out to pick up “a couple of things,” which turns into “just one more,” which becomes “Oops. I did it again.”

I’m not doing that this year. I’m not. So, if you see me out and about, and if it appears I’ve overdone it, do me a favor: As you walk past, after we’ve done our hi-how-are-you-fine-thanks, look me in the eye and ask:

“Will that fit in the box?”