Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In a rather clever social experiment, Coby Persin turned the spotlight on human behavior and motivation. He taped 50 $1 bills to his suit; and, on a bright November day this year, he walked around Manhattan for an hour and a half. With his hands, he held up a sign that said, “Take What You Need.” Some people just passed him by, but not everybody.
A well-dressed businessman stopped and took some money. When questioned if he needed it, he responded that he was taking it because it was free. A woman sporting a Louis Vuitton purse grabbed $18 for herself. When questioned if she needed it, she said, “I have a nail appointment.” Clearly neither had the need to take the money. But, they did anyway.
Desiring what is needed to satisfy the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, safety and education is both a necessary and healthy attitude. But, many people desire and buy things that they really do not need. They buy on impulse, not keeping in mind their genuine needs but acting on impulse just to satiate their desire for more. This constant craving to acquire more goods beyond one’s needs is the social disease of consumerism.
Consumerism knows no class distinctions. Some affluent individuals ostentatiously flaunt their wealth. They buy the most expensive watches, frequently go to the best restaurants, and constantly upgrade their homes and furniture to show others how much they are worth. Even those with little wealth do the same on a lesser scale. They buy the newest large TV screens and the latest cell phones. In almost every case, the brand name matters more than the bargain or quality of the items purchased. Why is such consumerism so prevalent today?
Our culture conditions us to measure our personal worth in terms of our material possessions. The more we have, the more we are worth as a person. A high style of living, so some think, guarantees us social standing. Thus, many are obsessed with the desire to have more and more of the best. They can never have too much money in the process. Thus, it is no surprise that Americans spend more time shopping than socializing.
The inordinate desire to acquire more and more of things that we do not need but want has a name. It is “greed.” And, where greed is king, society cannot survive. Just think of ancient Rome.
The historian Edward Gibbon dates the Fall of Rome to Sept. 4, 476 A.D. when the Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus. Other historians date it to the year 410 A.D. when Alaric and the Visigoths breached the walls of Rome. Still others speak of Constantine’s defeat over Maxentius in 312 at the Milvian Bridge as the end of ancient Rome. But, the truth lies elsewhere.
It was not one event that brought Rome down. It was not the cry “Barbari ad portas” (barbarians at the gates) that signaled Rome’s collapse. Rather, it was the gradual moral breakdown within the very walls of ancient Rome. Once prosperity had lulled its citizens into thinking that their safety was secured, they foolishly gave in to their selfish instincts and become more and more greedy.
In the first century A.D, the Roman satirical poet Juvenal already noticed the greed. He spoke of how Rome’s politicians satisfied the greed of the masses to rise to power. He coined the expression “bread and circuses” to capture their ploy. Doling out food to fill the belly and entertainment to distract the mind allowed the politicians to rule as they wished. In the meantime, many neglected their civic responsibilities. The greed of many dulled their consciences to wider moral concerns and led to Rome’s demise. Could not the same end come to our society?
The world of advertising preaches the gospel of consumerism. Its evangelists are the young, attractive product-peddling models that grace our TV screens and billboards convincing us to buy what we do not need. Their sweet sounding voices surround us, seducing us to overvalue things. They excite our craving to have more and more and allure us to give in to greed.
There is an emptiness within us that cannot be filled by things. There is a deep longing to be accepted that cannot be satisfied by accumulating and acquiring more and more possessions. Yielding to greed only makes us want more. Since we are made for God, only God can fill our emptiness.
True contentment is not found in the palace of a king but in the manger that migrant parents borrowed for their newborn son. In Bethlehem, Jesus himself becomes “our daily bread” that fills us with joy. Welcoming him into our hearts and sharing him with others enriches us beyond the paltry pleasures of this passing world and brings peace and prosperity to our land. Christmas, not consumerism, is the answer to our deepest longings.