Acquiring more and more possessions do not always lead to fulfilment, says Fr Herbert Weber

I WAS invited to visit a couple whom I will call Terry and Nancy. As I drove up their driveway, I saw two boats on trailers, ready to be taken to water.

Terry came out to tell me how happy he was with the larger boat, his newest acquisition, which he was going to christen the next day.

Once inside the house, the couple gave me a tour. Terry showed me the living room and activities area. There was a custom-built entertainment centre that rivalled any I had seen. In another room he let me look at the latest in digital and wireless technologies.

As Terry demonstrated all of these items, Nancy looked on, remaining somewhat quiet. When she excused herself to go to the kitchen, Terry turned to me and said, “But, Father, I’m not happy.”

It was one of the saddest statements I have ever heard, especially poignant in that he had just shown me all his exciting possessions. The sadness was magnified when he added that his purchases were actually beyond his means.

Perhaps when we hear the word “greed”, we think of some tycoon who is gobbling up companies and closing down small neighbourhood shops. That may, in fact, be greed. But so is what Terry was experiencing.

The very definition of greed is that there is an unhealthy desire for more and more possessions.

For Terry, the many things he was able to purchase – or at least make payments on – seemed so important to him at the time. Yet, in stating his unhappiness, he clearly was admitting their failure to satisfy his craving.

If a person’s needs are spiritual or emotional, material possessions will not be able to satisfy them. Often the very item that seems so important for our happiness becomes one more empty promise.

Ironically, I have found that people can be guilty of greed even when they possess little.

One student in a secondary school confirmation class was not the least apologetic when he chose a well-known Wall Street tycoon as his hero. When asked to explain why, he simply said, “Because he has whatever he wants.”

This young student was from a hardworking family that always had the basics but not much more. Yet, his mind was focused on money that he thought would afford him happiness.

Greed can exist in any society, but it seems often to reach epidemic proportions where there is rampant consumerism. Consequently, people have to find ways to avoid temptations to greed.

In many cities, weekend newspapers feature advertisements from almost every store, announcing discounts on clothing, computers, cameras, televisions, kitchen appliances and outdoor gear. Often the ads indicate that the sale will only last a day or two. Buyers must shop immediately!

I recall one woman who said that she and her husband had a pact. Both felt they were vulnerable to the “buy it now before this deal is gone” approach. So they helped each other put those advertisements in the recycle bin before they ever looked at them.

Perhaps the best antidote to greed is an awareness of the true value of possessions and a thoughtful decision about how to make use of all items.

In the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, published by the US bishops, greed is discussed with reference to stewardship of treasure. It notes that when people admit that all material items are gifts from God on loan for use in building up God’s kingdom, they can then consciously choose how to use those possessions.

Returning a percentage to God through charitable giving also helps people maintain a mentality of non-greed.

In the same vein, generous giving and sharing of one’s possessions can ameliorate the powerful pull of greed. It takes practice, but it is possible to learn to give altruistically, thus helping to place the focus on other people rather than on things.

Challenging greed requires work wherever the desire for something is beyond reason and where that desire takes control of one’s decision making.

Gradually, serious Christians learn not to let possessions take charge of their lives. It is then that they discover the great paradox: It is in letting go of possessions, in not in having them, that real happiness can be found. – CNS