When I was in college I decided two things. I decided I did not want to be rich or famous. The impressive thing is I’ve been able to achieve both goals at a relatively young age. You might say I am the Bill Gates of underachievers, the Oprah of obscurity, the Adele of anonymity, the Steve Jobs of simplicity. Or you could just say I “nailed it.”
Of course, I am only 55 years old so there is still time for me to blow it. However, at present I seem to be on track to avoid both wealth and fame. And according to Rabbi Harold Kushner that’s a good thing. In his book When Everything You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough he reminds us “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little different for our having passed through it.”
Of course, in the eyes of much of the world the non-materialistic person is a failure. We give homage to spirituality. We remind each other that “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” We quote the scripture, “Do not store up your treasures on earth, where moths destroy and thieves break in and steal.” And yet one of the fastest growing industries in America is storage space.
Just the other day I noticed a new self-storage business in West Knoxville that is four stories tall, a veritable high rise of storage. It looks like our clutter is moving on up in the world. Economists estimate that there is 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in our country creating a 38 billion dollar industry.
We are in the midst of the holiday season when gift giving is the order of the day. I believe it is no coincidence that the four story self storage business is right across the street from West Town Mall where the parking lots are full and the streets jammed with traffic because of holiday shopping and people are buying more things that may end up in storage.
Of course, you don’t even have to go to the mall to accumulate possessions anymore. All we have to do is click. However we shop, we have to admit that it is a time of year when it can be tempting to store up our treasures on earth.
Many years ago, I taught a class on Buddhism here at the church and I pointed out that the Buddha stated that it is our desires are what make us miserable. I often say that if you doubt our desires make us miserable all you have to do is take a small child to a Toys R Us store and ask yourself, “Is this child happier than they were before?” Anyone who has witnessed a meltdown on aisle three knows the answer to that question. Such moments are a very dramatic example of the ways our desires can make us miserable. Of course, I believe Toys R Us isn’t even a box store anymore. It’s an on-line business. And this should make us think. How much time do our children and youth spend on-line these days? Is all that time leading to more or less happiness?
Speaking of on-line shopping. By now everyone on earth has heard of the show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and we are all familiar with her advise that we should go through our homes, pick up things and ask ourselves the question, “Does it spark joy?” If it does we should keep it. If it does not we should let it go in order to simplify our lives.
Of course, paradoxically, Marie Kondo now has her own on-line store so that you can buy more stuff. Her website says, “The goal of tidying is to make room for meaningful objects, people and experiences. I can think of no greater happiness in life than being surrounded only by the things I love.” Hmmmmmm, well this may be true, but if we are not carefully even the most meaningful objects might end up in a storage unit.
The proverb tells us, “Money can’t buy happiness.” However, the link between the spiritual world and the material world is not that simple. Those who make less that $10,000 a year report the highest levels of depression in our country. However, those who earn more than $80,000 report more depression than those who make between $30,000-$39,000. How do we account for that? I don’t know for certain – but I do have a theory. Perhaps it is because when we are poor we are depressed because we can’t have anything we want. Whereas when we are wealthier we are depressed because we cannot have everything we want.
To use my Toys R Us metaphor – If we can’t afford to go to the toy store we may be miserable but if we can go to the toy store and we can make it to aisle three then we may be miserable for entirely different reasons.
The Tao Te Ching says that a society where people value owning a lot of possessions will be a society with a lot of burglaries, theft and crime. A society where there is a lot of conspicuous consumption will be a place where there is very little peace.
When the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association was in Long Beach, CA, I discovered I could take the Metro Rail to Hollywood. On that Metro Line there were moments when I was the only white person in the car as we traveled through neighborhoods of every income level from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. The closer we got to the wealth the more white people there were on the train. By the time I got to Hollywood I understood why Los Angeles periodically erupts in rioting.
Mahatma Gandhi was a religious leader but he said it is wrong to talk about religion to the hungry, “To the poor God can only appear as bread.” To the homeless God can only appear as shelter and warmth. When it comes to basic necessities, food, water, shelter, we need to get some basic requirements met before we can contemplate the more spiritual dimensions of living.
And yet once these basic requirements are met we may begin to hunger for meaning, thirst for purpose, seek the warmth of a spiritual community, a church, a synagogue, a mosque.
Western countries that have doubled or tripled their wealth over the last 50 years have not doubled or tripled their level of happiness. As living standards increase expectations change, new desires emerge and other options open up. So living standards improve but happiness rates remain relatively flat.
If the Unitarian Universalist church has a patron saint of simplicity it is Henry David Thoreau, who grew up in a Unitarian church but chose to live the life of a hermit on the shores of Walden Pond for a period of his life, building his own home, living close to nature, spending less time earning a living and more time on life. When our youth group goes on its Boston Heritage Trip we always take a pilgrimage to Walden Pond.
Here are some things Henry David Thoreau had to say about material possessions, “Superfluous wealth can buy only superfluities. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.””Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” “Most luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensible, but positive hindrances to the elevation of (hu)mankind. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.”
Of course, one of the reasons Thoreau could lead such a simple life is because he was single. He did not have a brood of children looking forward to a visit from Santa Claus. If he ever did have kids I’d hate to think how disappointed they would be on Christmas morning.
Christmas has even influenced Judaism to be more materialistic this time of year. Any rabbi will tell you that Chanukah isn’t even a very important holiday on the Jewish calendar. However, every Jewish parent will tell you that you need something special this time of year to compete with Christmas. That’s how we got presents for Chanukah. It’s like the comedian Adam Sandler sings,
The Festival of Lights
Instead of one day of presents
We have eight crazy nights!”
Our culture encourages consumerism this time of year, for this reason I decided to schedule this sermon after the church auction. So whatever our religious beliefs this is a challenging time of year to focus on the spiritual more than the material.
If you’re a single man living alone in a hut by a remote pond more power to you. However, the rest of us are going to have to struggle a little harder to find simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! None of us is perfect when it comes to simplicity. For instance why did Thoreau write “simplicity” three times? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to write in once? However, Thoreau is correct that the pursuit of outward riches should never distract us from the discovery of inward ones.
Jonathan Haidt is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies human happiness. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis he writes, “Buddhism and Stoicism teach that striving after external goods is always striving after the wind. Happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance.” “…striving to obtain goods and goals in the external world cannot bring you more than momentary happiness. You must work on your internal world….people today devote themselves to the pursuit of goals that won’t make them happier, in the process neglecting the sort of inner growth and spiritual development that could bring lasting satisfaction.”
Many years ago I took my kids on a science field trip with Spartanburg, South Carolina’s answer to Bill Nye the Science Guy. Mr. Green was his name, and he was the head of the local science center. We took a group of kids on a hike in search of a beaver dam. One of the kids seemed particularly excited as we walked but when we got to the beaver dam he had the equivalent of a meltdown on aisle three. The kid cried out, “I thought we were going to see a beaver lodge!” Without skipping a beat Mr. Green pointed to me and said to the kid, “Do you see this man?” Needless to say I felt put on the spot but M. Green continued, “This man has studied philosophy and all of philosophy can be summed up in one sentence – if you don’t have it appreciate what you do have.”
Mr. Green made a very important point. While it might not be a summary of all of philosophy, it was a good condensing of one of the key points of Buddhist and Stoic philosophy, “If you don’t have it, appreciate what you do have.” Another philosopher summarized it by saying, “Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are.”
So in conclusion let me say, I may not be Bill Gates. I may not be Oprah or Adele or Steve Jobs or Bono or Lady Gaga, nevertheless, I can want what I have, do what I can and be who I am and so can you. Nothing more can be required of us. If we do this much then we can say we nailed it.
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 14, 2020)