Hamilton County Courthouse: Seat of the wealthiest per-
capita county in Indiana.
Last year I worked harder than I’ve ever worked and made more money than I’ve ever earned in a year. When I see some of the ways I spent that money, it embarrasses me.
There’s a funny thing about people with lots of goodies; nothing is ever quite enough. No matter what you have, the next thing - the bigger thing – “If I just had that, then I’d be happy.” But somehow we never are.
Many of us already have more material comforts than we need. How big must the SUV be? How flat and large a TV do we really need? How many iPhones and computer games must a child have before they're happy?
The biggest, shiniest cars won’t instill our sons with virtue. Clothing from Polo Ralph Lauren won’t guarantee our daughters grace. Lawn service and a hired house cleaner won’t make our kids honest. A 3D television won’t make them hard workers. iPads won’t make them creative. Lavish birthday parties won’t make them appreciative. A Bluetooth home theater system can’t insure peace of mind.
Sometimes as I drive about Hamilton County’s ever-growing sprawl before Christmas, buying gifts, I get depressed watching grumpy people shop. Post all the photos you like of folks in trashy clothes at Wal Mart, but there’s nothing uglier than unhappy, well-dressed people shopping – sighing heavily and eyeing their trendy wrist watches impatiently at long lines and slow store clerks.
We are materialistic beyond calculation. Too often material possessions are our currency of affection, the way we show our loved ones we care. The goodies can be counted and measured, while things that truly matter in life maddeningly defy calculation. That simple fact probably explains why we focus so much attention on things instead of people. The armchair psychologist in me thinks that sometimes when we’re shopping, we’re looking for things that stores don’t sell.
And the truth is, I’m as guilty as the next guy.
Our ministers share these truths in church on Sunday and we nod our heads in solemn agreement, "Of course. Yes, yes." Monday morning we go about another week like we never heard a word.
It’s easy to count money and measure square footage, but not so easy to measure love, beauty and quality of life. Counting up things you can hold in your hand is comforting, a way to size things up, a way to measure ourselves against other people, a way to keep score - which is pretty pathetic when you think about it. If adversity brings out the best in people, perhaps excess comfort brings out the worst, for I fear that as wealth increases, our imagined needs become more petty.
We think we’re measuring quality of life when we measure standard of living, but often we’re not. Quality of life and standard of living can be the same thing, but often aren’t. One measures comfort and happiness. The other measures money. But oh how easy it is to confuse the two.
So what’s the alternative to this strip mall culture and its worship of crap? My short list is this:
I wish we found more pleasure in loving rather than feeling superior to people – I noticed during my teaching days that some children can’t have fun unless someone else isn’t. There are adults like that, too. I wish we lived in places more interested in beauty and community than profits and patronage. I’d rather we were bored with the wealthy and fascinated by the poor. I wish more people knew how to plant a garden than construct Ikea furniture. And when it comes to life’s opportunities and pleasures, I wish we worried less about what things cost and more about what things are worth.
None of that can be bought at Wal-Mart. None can be found on-line shopping. Still, sometimes I find myself working and buying as if I thought they could.
Can my wish list be fully realized? No. Like Bob Dylan sang, it’s all, “blowin’ in the wind.” The things most valuable in life are hard to capture, hard to hold in your hand with any certainty, hard to nail to the floor or count like money in your wallet.
Maybe we need to put all our efforts to the “deathbed test.” What of the things we spend our days on will we be most proud of as we lay on our deathbeds? Will we be thankful for kitchens with 6-burner commercial stoves and Internet-ready refrigerators, self-driving cars, Fossil watches, gadgets from the Apple Store, and undies from Victoria’s Secret? Or will we think about spiritual wealth – love, family, kindness, laughter?
We all know the truth, but live much of our lives like we haven’t a clue.
*Another reason I love my brilliant, funny wife – I was particularly proud of the line in this piece, “sometimes when we’re shopping, we’re looking for things that stores don’t sell,” and read it to her. She smiled and said, “You obviously haven’t shopped at Amazon.com. They’ve got everything.”
“A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”