“Shame our wanton selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul …”
The preacher in me gets the best of me when I think of a particular disease that has a stranglehold on the lives of both believer and non-believer. Let me say what I mean. To date, there is little willingness to curb the rapidly spreading illness called “affluenza.” This is a malady wherein a nation or a people have a dysfunctional relationship with money and wealth.
Let it be said that money and material acquisition are not innately evil, but the selfish use and excessive accumulation of belongings are evil. Those who accumulate wealth can become victims of desired resources and then proceed to excessively increase them. The result is a polarization of classes and a loss of economic and emotional balance. Welcome to America and other like countries.
Extreme wealth’s opposite is an extreme lack thereof, and both are in good supply. One has fewer participants than the other, however. And the gap continues to widen, unfortunately. The result is likened unto an economic seesaw — at one end is impoverishment and at the other end is high living. It just so happens that the seesaw is heavily weighted on one end.
The mythical and spiritual stories of antiquity tell us that humankind’s desire for the “good life” has often been the pursuit of power through enjoyments and acquisitioning. The hedonists of the 4th Century BC unashamedly said that the self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure was the goal of life. Yet, there is no evidence that an increase in affluence makes one happy.
But there are signs that the planet we inhabit has holding limits and will not absorb a proliferation of affluence-causing human waste. Thus, a crucial and emerging question is “Where will we be dumping or storing our growing piles of garbage?” And this question has morality written all over it. Human behavior still grapples with a greed and behavior that needs repair.
Americans have more stuff now than any society in history. The junk-hauling business is booming, professional organizing companies are thriving and the storage shed industry is burgeoning. These are indicators of a culture trying to deal with a self-caused illness — accumulation overload.
Josh Sanburn, in a Time magazine essay on “The Joy of Less,” writes that children in the U.S. make up 3.1 percent of the world population, yet U.S. parents purchase 40 percent of the world’s toys. Sanborn writes: “We’re bombarded almost minute-by-minute with too much of everything: too much information, too much television, too much email, too much social media, too many apps for too many problems from being too connected.”
The caustic and prophetic comedian George Carlin once said that “one’s house is nothin’ but a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. So that’s all a house is. It’s just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”
Indeed, our “wanters” need fixing. We are crippled by a craving to amass what we think is needful. I am brought to laughter when I read columnist George Will observe that a need is really no more than “a 48-hour want.” He is ever so right. And sales-savvy companies have made drone-like delivery a purchasing satisfier, acquiescing to what buyers have decided are immediate needs, turning these two-day wants into same-day service.
Affluence is a very real and moral problem. Many, if not most, quests for excessive wealth are vulnerable to having evil as a companion. Luxury is a vice waiting to happen.
I am aware of a few good women and men who have been economically successful and who have chosen to generously share it with causes that raise the standard of life. Yet, there remain many others who have chosen to keep and increase what they have, making luxury their standard and modus operandi.
Don Stevenson is an adjunct instructor of philosophy and ethics at Hagerstown Community College and is a retired, part-time minister at Trinity Reformed UCC in Boonsboro. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.