I spend a good bit of every day listening to physicians and dentists express their wants, needs, and dreams. It’s interesting to hear, because the line between want and need is relative, though the two seem to be one and the same in most of these conversations. I can empathize with the statements I hear as I’ve said them myself at times. I wanted to write this article to share something I’ve been reflecting on, in hopes that it would provoke a thoughtful examination of materialism. I fear many of us are falling into the self-imposed prison of the constant pursuit of more. We increase lifestyle, which demands working longer or harder to sustain it. In our search for success, we acquire more responsibility and complexity. We justify that it’s all for our spouse and kids, when in reality, they would much rather us work less, put the phone down, read them a story, and sleep beside them every night. We say it’s all for the sake of maintaining, of providing, and that one day we’ll be able to settle down and enjoy life together when we reach a certain point of financial security. Much of the time, we’ve fallen into the trap of maintaining image or feeding our pride. At our worst, we are working to raise the pedestal we sit on so that more of the world will see how far we’ve come. It’s time to be honest with ourselves and consider that we may be searching for happiness in all the wrong places.
Often, we search for meaning in what we can have, build, make, or even in how we look. We’re smart enough to know these are trivial pursuits, yet we wake up and search for them, live for them every day. We live in a culture of self-promotion, and we fall prey to the endless marketing this world pushes upon us. We chase such things because they provide immediate gratification in the form of pride. Regardless of whether we’re in grade school or are 20 years into our careers, many of our decisions are controlled by the desire for the acceptance of others. But vanity is a hollow ambition.
On one level, the Biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve is about God teaching discipline and authority. Going deeper, however, I believe there is more to the meaning of this story as it relates to us today. All of us have a tempting “fruit” in our lives. We believe this fruit holds the answer to our questions of purpose and happiness. Society has even conditioned us to pursue this elusive gain at great cost. At the end of these pursuits is an existential crisis, meaninglessness, and a yearning for more. We are still not satisfied. An incredible 7 out of 10 suicides are caucasian males, the most privileged demographic in America. We fall for the lie that happiness is achieved through possessions and wealth.
The inverse relationship that exists between vanity and fulfillment - shedding the prioritization of self to find the significance of self - is difficult to grasp. It’s the opposite of what the world tells and teaches us. Arriving at this understanding is initially disconcerting.
In the moment that we learn that superficial materialism doesn’t deliver, that it always disappoints and is never enough, we are finally able to see beyond the silly game of excess and into what may be a life worth living. It’s then that we see how life is possibly about doing without rather than doing with. As a Christ-follower, I desire to emulate the counter-cultural ideas about materialism and pride that Jesus espoused. The Jewish world wanted Jesus to be a powerful King ready to conquer the world, to achieve the greatest status ever known to man. Instead, he was born in a manger. He blessed the poor, the humble, the peacemakers, and the meek. He frequently dined with those ostracized in society, and rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. If ever there was an example of a fulfilling life that found purpose in a different way, it was him. Many times I find myself trapped in materialistic pursuit, and I need constant reminders that this life is short and temporal, just as Jesus’ followers did thousands of years ago. It is not easy to swim against the stream of our culture, but I believe it is ultimately the most rewarding.
We can then begin to enjoy stewardship instead of wasting, a simple life instead of needless complexity, less instead of more. It’s the same feeling of joy that comes from cleaning out a closet, downsizing your home, using what you have instead of buying something new. This contrarian philosophy can be helpful as it relates to financial planning. With customized discipline, we can begin to make lasting change. The goal is not to acquire as much as possible with our lifetime cashflow, but to focus on stewardship. It’s not about saving a set amount and then lavishly wasting the rest on ourselves. The better method would be to spend and save what we truly need, and be a good steward by planning with the rest. Freeing ourselves from our addictions to “more stuff” provides us the ability to get involved in philanthropy, making investments in others through charities and long-term giving strategies. My desire is that we will learn that money is not just capable of funding our own lifestyles and eventual retirement if managed properly, but that it can be used in endless ways to help others. And in the end, we just may find that elusive joy we’d been searching for all along.