There’s a pen and ink drawing of an old building I saw a decade ago that I would like to have. I’m not going to identify it more specifically, for fear that someone will get it for me. Wanting – and not getting it – is one of the touchstones of my life.
What is my right relationship with the material things of this world? Ubiquitous advertising and social norms would say that things define me. I had a close friend who talked of engaging in contests predicated on the basis of, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” I didn’t say it to him, but I wanted to add “what?” to the end of that phrase.
Materialism is as pervasive and unquestioned in our world as racism was in the 1800’s. I use that comparison deliberately, because materialism and racism both produce similar benefits and costs. Some people get more because others get less.
The links were easy to see with slavery. The plantation mansion was built on the backs of unpaid labor.
The links today are less obvious, but still pervasive. Our contemporary connectedness lets me see globally, if I choose to do so. A simple yardstick has been around for a long time. “Live simply that others may simply live.” That’s a straightforward message that is utterly counter-cultural and extremely difficult for me to live up to.
More than a billion people in the world are hungry. Millions of malnourished children die each year. I live in a house heaped with things I don’t need and struggle continually not to gain more weight.
The antithesis of my lifestyle would perhaps be those monks who own nothing and wander about with begging bowls. If those around them feel they are worthy, the monks will be fed. But they go through life with no assurances past the present moment. And need none.
I on the other hand pile up wealth and possessions to guard against any conceivable contingency. In the process, I also leave little room for what could be the most important aspect of life – the presence of God.
It simply is not true that I own anything. Everything is a gift of God. Moreover, the things in my possession also own me. Much of our contemporary lives are spent taking care of, protecting and being preoccupied by things we have accumulated.
I have come to see that love is the only thing worthwhile in these lives of ours. Love of God, family and all those around us. Spending time and helping others – exercising our compassion – produces lasting happiness.
“Things” are tools that assist us in being compassionate. They are also burdens, using up the limited resources of our lives.
All of this is however difficult to remember. For whatever reason, I’ve always liked watches. When I pass a display of them in a store, they draw my eyes. A beautiful car, warm coat or new toy all might be fun to own. How am I to live rightly when confronted by temptation? Particularly when I’m bombarded with media messages encouraging consumption.
Wanting – and not getting – is thus a necessary exercise for me, a reminder of who I am and what I’m here for. I know I’m having a good day when I can walk through a mall and think, “There is nothing here that would make my life more wonderful.”
Which is not to say that I can maintain that level of awareness. For some reason, I was drawn recently to begin playing the banjo. First I had to pay for one (even an inexpensive model was a great deal of money when compared to people living on a dollar a day). It’s tempting now to go on the internet and shop for music. Why not? I have the money to pay for it.
But should I use the gifts God has given me for such a purpose? And so I again begin an internal debate, time consuming but necessary if I am going to stay on my spiritual path.