By Wissam Nasrallah
I have always enjoyed going grocery shopping on weekends to buy what my family needs for the week. However, for the past two months, grocery shopping in Lebanon has become quite the psychological and spiritual experience. It is not the gearing up with facemask, gloves and hand sanitizer that makes things uncomfortable, rather it is not knowing what to expect in terms of price inflation from one trip to the next. The more the Lebanese Pound loses value against the US dollar, the more prices go up. Some local stores are even changing prices during the shopping day. Items can be priced in the morning and priced again in the afternoon. It is literally instant inflation.
But what does the price inflation of tuna have to do with faith?
For a country that imports most of what it needs, this means that practically nothing is spared, especially not my Lebanese Pound savings account. According to the World Food Program, the SMEB (Survival and Minimum Expenditure Basket) saw a 71% price increase between October 2019 and 20 April 2020 (prices have further increased since) while the Lebanese Pound has lost as much as 160% vs. the dollar. This crisis is revealing the extent to which the Lebanese economy has become a lazy rentier economy addicted to USD remittances by the diaspora. Now that the music stopped and the supply of dope dried up, the detoxification treatment is going to be long and painful with the most vulnerable having to pay the highest price.
At times, grocery shopping has felt like playing the stock market with its rewards and regrets: the ephemeral reward of seeing the price of something you already bought double in price and the stinging regret of not having stockpiled more of it. But there has been something preventing me from adopting a “wild west” mentality and putting a whole shelf of tuna cans in my trolley. The right side of my brain refuses to believe that prices can further increase while the left part of my brain knows that it is a mathematical certainty given that products are imported at new dollar rates. It is therefore better to buy today what I will need tomorrow before the Lebanese pound further loses value. But will I need something tomorrow that I am not aware of today? Adding to the mental struggle of maximizing economic utility combined with the loss aversion bias, we face a spiritual battle. How much should I stockpile anyway? Is there an ethical limit? Does “storing up for tomorrow” mean I don’t trust God enough today? What would happen if everybody started behaving like me?
One thing has been certain; the mere thought of being a sitting duck in the midst of the crisis consumes me. Filling my trolley with boxes of pasta or items that have not yet seen a severe inflation is my unconscious and futile way of saying that I will not go down without a fight after having already lost the battle of devaluation and the blitz of capital controls. Planning ahead and managing resources wisely during a crisis the way Joseph did as governor of Egypt (Genesis 41) is a good thing after all, especially if one can help others when calamity strikes. Joseph not only interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, he also provided advice on what to do and acted upon it. However, losing one’s peace over such an endeavor reveals a lack of trust in God. And this is probably what has affected me the most from a spiritual standpoint.
I realize that wanting to be in control of everything, especially my savings account, is not the kind of relationship God wants. It was clear that I have not been ready to say as Job did, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1: 21). I have been clinging to a lifestyle that is disappearing by trying to salvage the most cans of my favorite brand of tuna while not thinking enough of those who are most in need. This series of crises has humbled us as Lebanese in the area that made us the most proud: our way of life, our exquisite food and renowned joie de vivre. A lot turned out to be borrowed time.
The lesson I am still learning today is that of contentment and loving the Lord for Himself alone and not for the lifestyle we might have enjoyed in a specific point of time. This means a life free from anxiety induced by the “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO) on the best food, the best trips or even of having a “better” life from a material point of view. This is possible since we have the most important reward of all: a unique relationship with the source of life itself. And not having that relationship should be the most legit FOMO!
My prayer is that after the locust of greed and quick gain leave the land empty and morally (and financially) bankrupt, we may, in the words of the prophet Joel, turn to God with, “all our heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and [that we] rend [our] hearts and not [our] garments” (Joel 2:12-13).
 In behavioral economics, people prefer avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gain: we prefer not to lose $100 than win $100.