Last month, I joined tens of thousands of Americans in donating to relief organizations after Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake. Today, we continue to give in many ways -- planning rebuilding assistance trips through our churches, picking up the slack for co-workers who are away in Haiti or the Dominican Republic helping, or simply sending an email to friends requesting donations. Both of my boys are regularly praying for the people of Haiti at night and are organizing fund-raisers in their elementary school classes. Haiti's crisis was the rare moment that fixed our national attention and called us to spend our money and time in a way that reflected our moral impulses. But how often do we align our moral compasses with the rest of our lives?
Like Haiti, the nation's economic crisis presents another opportunity for all of us to reconsider the choices we make. In my new book Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street, I argue that the financial collapse is a transformational moment in which we can bring changes to American laws, society, culture, and our own lives that reflect our oldest and best values and would help prevent another Great Recession from happening.
But books can't do it alone -- only new national conversations and, to use a religious term, conversions can. Real change will only begin when people make different choices. That's why, in the final chapter of Rediscovering Values, I shared 20 practical things you can do to catalyze positive shifts in your life and society. I've included five of these "moral exercises," as I call them, below.
1. Calendars and Budgets are Moral Documents
A budget tells you what and who are most important to a family, a church, a city, state, or nation. Being a father, I have also learned that a calendar is also truly a moral document in the same way a budget is. Our calendars show how we spend our time, and our budgets show how we spend our money.
Make a list of the priorities in your life. Then go through your calendar and budget with your spouse, a family member, trusted friends or even your church group and list the top ways you are spending your time and your money. How does it match up with your life priorities and how is it different? You may be in for some surprises. What changes could you make in how you are spending your time and your money to make sure it is the same as what you want your most important priorities to be?
2. Screen Time vs. Family Time
Screens are everywhere in our life today, making us more efficient, but also more distracted. In our families there is a constant tension between the time our kids spend in front of screens and the time they spend reading, playing outside, using their imagination, or spending quality time with their family.
How have the TV, computer and phone screens in your life become distractions? Do you or your family need some screen-free time, with some rules and guidelines to make room for time better spent -- including quality time with family and friends?
3. 'Tis a Gift to Be Simple -- A Life Style Audit
Paying for things we don't need, with money we don't have, needs to be replaced in our lives with remembering that it is a gift to be simple. Simplicity is not about restricting the abundance of life, but rather cutting out the things that aren't really important so that life can actually be lived more fully. This can become both a regular practice and a spiritual discipline.
Is it your many trips to the coffee shop? Going out to eat too much? Too much expensive entertainment? That extra car? Too expensive vacations? Find something in your life that you know is a want more than a need, and try giving it up for a while. Next time you are shopping, ask yourself before every item you pull off the shelves: is this a want or is it a need? Spend that extra time or money on other priorities in your life or give it away to an organization or cause you believe in. Afterward, ask yourself again, did you really need it? Maybe the same people you went over your budget and calendar with can now help you with your lifestyle audit.
4. Living a Life of Service
Every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas, volunteers and donations flood into food pantries and homeless shelters to try and make sure every person in our country has something to celebrate. But service is about more than a once a year gesture or something just for the holidays.
Find a local volunteer opportunity with your family and friends and make a year-long commitment to regular service with an effective organization serving those in need. This is a great way to involve your children in something that will change them. Use that extended time to build relationships with the people you will be serving or being a bridge for others to get involved as well. Resources on the Sojourners website (www.sojo.net) can help you get started--but there might even be a service opportunity at your church or place of work and it is time to get involved.
5. Where is your money?
My wife Joy and I made the decision that none of the big national banks that got huge bailouts and then gave shameless bonuses to their executives were the right place for our money. We wanted to be sure that we brought our business to institutions that we could better trust, at least trying to reflect some of our values, and that were more connected to our local community.
Who are you banking with? Where is your money invested? Have a retirement account? College savings account? Go through your finances and determine if the places where you have your money reflect your values. If not, use some of the resources on the www.sojo.net website to find places that might be a better place to do business, that are more reflective of your values.
There are 15 more of these moral exercises in the book, ranging from the very personal to what families can do -- from congregational checklists to challenging public policies to hold both economic and political institutions more accountable. Only new choices really make changes, and if we want to see change, those choices are up to us.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.