The Desire to Acquire
Why is it that the things we seek in life to find meaning and happiness often become the very distractions that keep us from true fulfillment? Why are depression and debt at an all-time high when we have more than ever? The recent, dramatic economic downturn has thrown the spotlight on the insatiable beast of greed, putting it at the forefront of political and cultural debate.
Greed seems to overtly manifest itself in the individualistic consumerism of the developed world, but it is a thoroughly human vice. At its essence, greed has to do with a driving sense of acquiring things, whether power, possessions, or prestige. It is the search for satisfaction that often denies others their basic needs. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines greed as a “selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed.”
In his latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Pulitzer-Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman warns that our modern lifestyle simply cannot be sustained long term. Globalization has flattened the world economically and contributed to the escalation of North American middle-class consumerism and consumption. Owning a car, a dishwasher, and an air conditioner has become a basic right.
Over-consumption and over-valuation lead to recession, explains Paul Rowe, Ph.D., associate professor of political and international studies at TWU. But, he notes, “greed is what makes the economic downturn such a big part of our lives. If we weren’t so greedy, perhaps we would deal with losing a job or having less to spend from a better perspective.”
It’s easy to point a finger at corporate avarice and society’s gluttonous consumption patterns, but it’s harder to stop and ask where greed has crept into our own lives. “Political scientists would say that greed comes from insecurity, which motivates us to do things to make us feel secure,” says Rowe. “The things we gather to ourselves to make us feel protected can be threatening to social balance. They create envy—the feeling that I’m not as good as somebody else because I don’t have the things that they have.”
The Road More Traveled
“The biblical tradition shows us why we’re greedy - it’s called the fall,” says Calvin Townsend, TWU instructor in political studies and religious studies. “What defines the human condition is this intense longing for happiness or completion. We find ourselves for the first time in history,” he says, “in a place where everyone in the Western world is entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of stuff.’” Neil Postman called it “amusing ourselves to death,” which he discussed in his book by the same title.
“So if eternity doesn’t exist, then this energy that drives you as a human being is directed to two things: producing and consuming,” says Townsend. “It’s comfortable self-preservation. We’ve turned into these pathetic, shallow ‘souls without longing,’ as Nietzsche would put it.”
Ironically, to spark economic recovery in a time of recession governments encourage consumers to increase spending. In December 2008, Church of England Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams voiced concern over British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “fiscal stimulus” package, which included tax cuts and increased public borrowing. “It seems a bit like the addict returning to the drug,” said Williams, who made headlines around the world when he asserted that global economic discourse must also ask the important moral questions. He urged the public to spend, not to save the economy but for “human reasons,” which include helping others who are less fortunate.
It may seem an unlikely time for society to become more generous, but according to history, Williams may be right on the money, so to speak. In fact, an economic downturn is the best time to give, as the need is far greater. “It’s when Christians get to step up to the plate and show our social worth,” says Rowe. “If you think back on the economic crisis of the early 1880s, and basically every 20 years from then on, those are the times we saw the greatest extension in Christian social activity, from the Salvation Army to the social gospel movement.”
The Paradox of Contentment
Difficult times often reveal our true nature, causing us to either hoard more than usual, or to give more than ever. “The French theologian and mathematician Pascal said the most philosophical thing you can do as a human being is to live simply and live well,” says Townsend. “Did Jesus come to preach freedom and equality? No, he preached agape love. That’s what transforms us. The switch from ‘need love’ to ‘gift love’. When you’ve experienced that beauty, you embrace it.”
Is there hope to tame the insatiable beast of greed while living in our present culture? Alumni share some simple ways that they battle the desire to acquire. The beauty and power in each of these examples is that they are not contrived or performed but are simply responses of gratitude, rooted in reflection on the basic biblical principles of ‘gift love.’
“I can remember it as clear as day-I was driving my daughter home from youth group and she hit me with a verse from Ecclesiastes about the pointlessness of chasing after bigger, better, more: ‘Enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don’t have. Just dreaming about nice things is meaningless—like chasing the wind’ (6:9). It instantly pierced my gut to almost the point of breathlessness. I watch driven people, who are always in a perpetual state of ‘I will be happy when…’ And I myself fall into that trap. ‘…when I lose weight, when we have that house, when my business gets there.’ So I make a conscious effort to focus on what I have—a fantastic family, where everybody is healthy, and we all like each other. There is a ton of power in contentment.”Peter Reek ('89)
Owner and Principal, SmartSavvy and Associates
Grow and Share Locally
“I began volunteering for a local food justice organization in Ottawa last year, which led to my current role of co-coordinator of a new community garden in my neighborhood. The garden has plots for low-income residents so they can grow healthy food for free; we also donate the produce from one plot to a local foodbank. Local gardens lend themselves to environmental sustainability by beautifying and ‘greening’ urban areas, by growing produce organically, and by reducing transportation emissions, which most of us unwittingly contribute to when we purchase food at the grocery store.”Jocelyn Durston ('04)
International Policy Analyst, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
“For me, it was amazing to go to Malawi on a water filtration project for six months between jobs, do a full 180, and see how the majority of people in the world live–below the poverty level. I was told I’d never break back into business after leaving my job, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break out of that rut and really blow apart my worldview-to live differently. We have to hold life loosely and stay open to what God brings along. We live in this culture so we aren’t going to stop spending money altogether, but we can be a little more conscious of why we’re spending it.”Jeff Town ('03)
Account Manager, The Beat 94.5
“As a graphic designer and photographer, it’s amazing to work in a field I love. Being self-employed, I tend to get over-committed and I need to draw boundaries. I set aside a truly restful, rejuvenating day once a week. It’s obviously a spiritual exercise, but it’s also a day to spend time with people I care about, go to the art gallery or the beach after church, and get some perspective on all those things that can get lost if you don’t take a break.”Rachel (Dickey) Pick ('02)
Owner, Mint Creative
Volunteer, Wherever and Whatever
“Volunteering is not an antidote to greed, but it’s a good start. These days, volunteering is customizable, too. You can volunteer from home and still make a huge difference. Pick your favourite charity and offer your skills as a writer, a designer, or a lawyer for a couple hours a month; or use your blog to fundraise for them, and you’ll be surprised at how much of a difference you can make.”Kevan Gilbert ('06)
Interactive Media Coordinator, Union Gospel Mission
“When giving of your earnings is the priority–the first thing you do with your money when you’re paid–it sets a precedent for what you do with the rest of it. For Stef and I, we give as generously as we possibly can. It doesn’t end the struggle of greed, or wanting more, but it does help ward off the want.”Cliff Cline ('92)
Director of Canadian Programs, Feed the Children Canada
“The key is to surround yourself with like-minded friends. If you’re all pursuing the same goals-living simply, living purposefully - then it makes it much easier. But if you surround yourself with others who are constantly striving for bigger houses and newer cars, it makes it very difficult to not find yourself pursuing the same things.”Ryan Snider ('95)
Ph.D. candidate, University of Waterloo
by Julie Frizzo Barker '02
illustration by Zack Rock '04
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