Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"I have three things I'd like to say to you today," evangelist and author Tony Campolo proclaimed to an auditorium full of Christian college students. "First, while you were sleeping last night, twenty four thousand kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. And third is that you're probably more upset with the fact that I said 'shit' than the fact that twenty four thousand kids died last night."

Campolo's intent is obviously to be offensive when he makes statements like that. His red herring is there in hopes that you ask yourself one question: Are you offended by things that are worth being offended about? Or do you only focus on things that have no lasting importance?

Swearing is a pretty trivial example, though, in comparison to other things that distract us from bigger issues. The one in particular that needs to be addressed more often is materialism. Focusing on our possessions and how to get more of them seems to be the chief goal of many, if not most, Americans.

The goal of this blog is to continually ask, "What does it profit?" I have yet to find any long-term benefit to a focus on material possessions. I challenge anyone to explain the long-term benefits of frivolous spending. And no, "fueling the economy" is not a valid answer; I highly doubt that's how you justified your tenth pair of shoes or your sixth $200 purse.

Another common justification is social status. When we own that nice car, that designer purse and those name-brand electronics, we feel like we're a part of some special club. But, again, what does that profit? If your goal in life is to feel important, you're only setting yourself up for others to envy you. The more status you have, the more likely you are to have enemies and people who pose as friends to take advantage of your position. Can you enjoy your status if you can't trust the people around you?

The problem is that buying stuff to make yourself happy is short-sighted. Most of us are aware that new purchases tend to not make us as happy for as long as we originally intended. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of Stumbling On Happiness, has spent much of his professional life studying happiness, and what causes it versus what we think will cause it.

In The Futile Pursuit Of Happiness, an essay about Gilbert's work, Jon Gertner writes, "What Gilbert has found... is that we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions — our 'affect' — to future events. In other words, we might believe that a new BMW will make life perfect. But it will almost certainly be less exciting than we anticipated; nor will it excite us for as long as predicted." He continues:

Would a 20 percent raise or winning the lottery result in a contented life? You may predict it will, but almost surely it won't turn out that way. And a new plasma television? You may have high hopes, but the impact bias suggests that it will almost certainly be less cool, and in a shorter time, than you imagine. Worse, Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure... A large body of research on well-being seems to suggest that wealth above middle-class comfort makes little difference to our happiness, for example... We often yearn for a roomy, isolated home (a thing we easily adapt to), when, in fact, it will probably compromise our happiness by distancing us from neighbors.

So why, if we can see concrete evidence suggesting that having stuff doesn't satisfy us, do we continue to buy into that lie? Why not take a proactive step when faced with the facts and stop putting all of your life's energy into a futile attempt at self-satisfaction?

The biggest obstacle in the way of solving many of the world's problems is our own selfishness. There's certainly enough money in the world that thousands of kids shouldn't have to die of starvation every day. The problem is that we think we'll find more long-term satisfaction in owning an iPod than in giving away that money when the inverse is more likely to be true. The effects of starvation on the other side of the world don't have an immediate effect on us, so we ignore a daily death toll for the sake of carrying our music in our pocket.

(And, by the way, that iPod money could feed a starving child for at least a year. Ending poverty and starvation is well within our reach.)

I don't want to sound "holier than thou," of course. I know I'm as much a culprit of materialism as anyone. I own an iPod. I sometimes wish I could drive a BMW. This is something we as Christians need to keep each other accountable to but rarely do. The New Testament is rife with commandments that oppose materialism and selfishness, and yet the sinful desire to own stuff is not looked down upon nearly as often as trivial things like using bad language, a topic that God's Word doesn't see the need to address nearly as often.

So, I would ask that if anyone has any comments of encouragement or suggestions as to how we can fight materialism and keep each other accountable in this fight, please leave them. And if anyone has any comments about the appropriateness of using the word "shit" on a Christian blog, please pause and ask yourself if you're being offended by things that really matter.