Saturday, October 10, 2009

Can't Get No Satisfaction

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

And again in the Living Bible

He who loves money shall never have enough. The foolishness of thinking that wealth brings happiness! The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income, so what is the advantage of wealth - except perhaps to watch it as it runs through your finger! The man who works hard sleeps well whether he eats little or much, but the rich must worry and suffer insomnia.

Everyone has made a crack about a starving child in Africa as we toss a plate full of food in the garbage, but I wonder, do you ever truly contemplate life in a developing country? I've travelled a lot in Latin America and I was Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. So whereas I can't speak for those starving African children, I can tell you a thing or two about peasant life in Latin America. Not that I ever was one, but I did live on an average person's wage while I was in the Peace Corps - $120 a month at that time.

When I think of people in Latin America, I don't think of misery and poverty. Yes, there is poverty of a kind we know nothing about in the United States. There are entire towns that don't have electricity in Latin America. Many still do their laundry in the river, the vast majority of people don't own a care and even if they have a car, the roads are terrible! The countries are incredibly poor in infrastructure and the people live on next to nothing. In July 2009, I took a mission trip to Peru to help build a missions school. We worked beside Peruvian hired laborers who were earning $10 a day - a typical construction worker's wage. In the United States, a construction worker wouldn't be satisfied with that as compensation for an hour's work! And these laborers were not properly outfitted either. They had no gloves and they wore flip-flops. They asked if we would buy them some rubber boots (about $4 a pair) for while they were working with cement. Our heavy equipment was a wheelbarrow and we did everything by hand (without electricity!).

Poverty, yes, but misery? Far from it. It seems that humans are a pretty adaptable species! And just as Americans have become accustomed to electricity and running water in climate-controlled dwellings, Peruvians are used to working without gloves, walking long distances with bundles of alfalfa on their backs and showering just every so often and usually in cold water. Sounds awful, but I can tell you with certainty that there are a good many happy people who live in that kind of poverty. Want to give it a try? You can get used to it, I promise!

The problem is that once we've become accustomed to a certain level of comfort, it's hard to give up those comforts. This human adaptability thing works best if it is put into play in childhood. It's sort of a one-way process - once we've adapted to a certain comfort, there's no u-turning. If you understand this to be true, you can see why is it vital in my life and yours to stop ourselves where we are right now, at our present comfort level.

What? I can't get any more comfortable than I am now? Why not?

Let's take this to its logical conclusion... decadence. (OK, that was easy.) As we climb the financial ladder, paying off those student loans, getting better paying jobs, even getting the kids out of college, and our income-to-expense margin widens, what will happen to that extra income? Some people have that extra income spent 20 years in advance: I'm going to travel; I'm going to buy that dream car; I'm going to move into a larger home; I'm going to buy an emerald ring… If our plans for that extra income include increasing our standard of living in some way, we are moving ahead in that one-way process, and there's no turning back, which means we will now have to sustain that improvement in our life. And if at our next raise or cash windfall, we better ourselves again, we've moved a little farther. If our capacity to better ourselves never decreases, we end up in the lap of luxury - decadence. (Hey, that doesn't sound too bad!)

What if that capacity doesn't increase? Well, then we're stuck at the point to wherever we last progressed, and if you're an American who owns a home and a car, that's not a bad spot to be stuck in. But what happens if our capacity to better ourselves not only doesn't increase, it doesn't even keep pace with the level of luxury we're accustomed to? That's when we start doing desperate things like using charge cards. And financially speaking, that's skating on thin ice. Some people do it and never fall through, for others, charge cards are the end of their good credit and peace of mind.

Do you know what's so hard about putting a halt to progression to seek more and more comfort? It's the fact that the Jones are more comfortable than we are. If we lived in a communist country where we were all dirt poor, it wouldn't be so hard to be happy with status quo. Or if we lived in a country like Peru where poverty is so wide-spread it's normal, we'd be in good company as we sat at night in conversation around one generator-powered bare light bulb. But here, in the Unites States, a very large contingent is wealthy, or at least displays a fa├žade of wealth, and they are very well publicized, and it leaves the rest of us wanting what they have.

Friend, look closely at what the Bible says those who love wealth have: never enough and no satisfaction. How would you like that in your fortune cookie: You will never be satisfied. (Waiter, can I have another cookie?)

I think the laborer to which Solomon contrasts the wealthy is iconic of the salt-of-the-earth factory worker, construction worker, school teacher, secretary and any other number of people who, despite the consumer-is-king culture in which we live, have managed to be content in their jobs, content in living in that same home for thirty years, content driving that Honda Civic until the engine drops out of it, content with double-knit polyester, elastic-waist pants that were purchased in 1980something and still look pristine (because that's just the way polyester rolls), content to eat a bowl of shredded wheat morning after morning, content to push-mow the lawn and conversely unshaken by the neighbor who's adding a deck with hot tub, dining on Don Schwann, dawning this year's Dockers, before he pulls out in his hybrid Accord, to head off to his new management position, which helped him afford the house next door.

We don't have to shop second-hand stores for a pair of stretch-waist pants to be more like the laborer. Wherever we are today, we can begin to be more like the laborer by just being content.What if it were God's will for me to never advance from my current station in life? Could I be happy with that? To be able to answer "yes" reflects a correct attitude toward wealth, a gratitude for what we do have (which if we're American or European, is a heck of a lot) and an ability to be content, like Paul, whatever the circumstances (Phil 4:11). This is a great skill to master and it has a pretty nice payoff too - sweet sleep.

Contemplate this: Can I learn to be happy with my current means?

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