One of the most majestic sea fronts in the world and it’s deserted; miles of tortuous and heathery track with occasional isolated clusters of caravans. Then we walk through the most serious competition to the good old C of E and its Sunday services: a full scale car boot sale where the burghers of Shanklin are selling the most extraordinary junk.
The spiritual aspect of possessions fascinates me…
In John Huston’s 1948 film, Key Largo, Rocco, the grasping crook (played by Edward G. Robinson) is asked by Major Frank McCloud (played by Humphrey Bogart) why he is so unscrupulous and greedy? The unreflective Rocco hasn’t a clue why.
McCloud guesses, “Is it because you want more?”
“Yes,” snarls Rocco, “That’s it: I want more.”
Stuff and More Stuff
The greed of man (and women!) is timeless. A friend told me he hasn’t spoken to his sister for 20 years because he alleges she stole some Tupperware – worth a few pounds at best – from their mother’s house just before she died. My wife, Jane, tells me that when she was a practising social worker she became used to people stealing money from their aged relatives’ handbags.
One of my lawyer friends always tells me that greed is at the heart of his clients’ motives: “Where there’s a will there’s a relative!” and “say ‘cash’, and a corpse rises to dance”.
When Jane and I visited New York a few months back, we saw a window sticker in a white stretch Mercedes that read: “The guy who dies with the most toys wins.” We live in a deeply materialistic, money-grubbing society. Why are we all so greedy? Do we love things more than we love the people around us? In the early Church it was said, “there were no needy persons among them”. If they had stuff they shared it.
Still, of course, that was 2,000 years ago…
And still we want more stuff. Over the past couple of days, we have walked past several charity shops selling out-of-date stuff; then we trailed a stop-go rubbish van carrying discarded stuff. After that we saw a yellow sign offering to hoard stuff in “self-storage facilities”.
William Penn (he founded Pennsylvania) called all the objects we cram into our houses “clumber”: the word’s a mix of the words “lumber” and “cloying”, and it seems to sum things up perfectly. We all have clumber: we see it, then we want it, so we buy it; then we show it to our neighbours and silently compare it with their clumber, and then we tire of it and throw it away, and look for more. In this way we often end up buying things we don’t really need with money we haven’t got in order to impress people we don’t really like. We imagine that if our clumber keeps accumulating, we’ll feel safe and secure. If our head says that’s nonsense, our hearts argue differently. Recall the Black Friday shopping day in the run up to Christmas when hundreds of shoppers belted each other as they fought for the best bargains.
US psychologist Paul Pearsall has the following to say to people who find it hard to part with possessions that they haven’t used for years. “You may require a ‘closet exorcist’, a trusted friend,” he suggests, “who can help prevent the ‘re-stuffing’ phenomenon. Re-stuffing happens when in the process of clearing out junk we are stimulated to acquire new stuff.” And beware the stuff addicts who see your cupboard cleaning exercise as an opportunity to acquire more stuff for themselves!
Chasing the Wind
We are obsessed with houses. Comedian George Carlin said that a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it – and some really quite successful people have managed to get by without ever owning one. Mother Teresa for starters, and what about Ghandi and Jesus?
I read about Hearst Castle recently. Apparently Randolph William Hearst was a “stuffaholic”. He built a vast house and filled it with antiques. He then bought chunks of the Californian coastline. And then… he died. Silly old Randolph.
When we die, we leave all out stuff behind – then our children (chanting how sad they are), pick over it like vultures and argue about what stuff they want to add to their stuff. Then they die and another vulture comes along to sift through the pile and so the process goes on. Nations go to war over stuff, and some families stop talking for generations because of it.
The book of Ecclesiastes has something to say about it all: “Meaningless! Meaningless!….Utterly meaningless… a chasing after the wind.”
For the Love of Money
Getting loads of wonga has its own problems. Recently I came across some quotes from some really rich people who found that out through bitter experience.
“The care of $200m is too great a load for any back or brain to bear. It is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it.” William Henry Vanderbilt
“I am the most miserable man on earth.” J.J. Astor
“Millionaires seldom smile.” Andrew Carnegie
“I have made millions but they have brought me no happiness.” John D. Rockefeller
“I was happier doing a mechanic’s job.” Henry Ford
Consider the tragic end of billionaire Howard Hughes. John Ortberg tells us that he was “a gothic horror. Emaciated, only 120 pounds stretched over his six-foot-four frame…a thin straggly beard that reached down his sunken chest. Hideous long nails in grotesque yellowed corkscrews….Many of this teeth were black stumps and a tumour was beginning to emerge from the side of his head. ….innumerable needle marks in his arms. He was an addict, a billionaire junkie.”
Would even more money have satisfied him? Would more money have satisfied Philip Seymour Hoffman who was found dead some time ago with a needle sticking out of his arm?
It was Henry Vanderbilt who, when asked, “How rich do you need to be for you to be satisfied”, answered “just a little bit more.”
I suppose the last laugh about money has to belong to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Moore remarked that if he were Rockefeller, he would end up richer than Rockefeller.
“How will you do that?” asked Cook.
“I’d do a little bit of window cleaning on the side”.
Having and Being
When Malcolm Muggeridge was an old man he wrote: “When I look back on my life, what strikes me most forcibly about it is that what seemed to me at the time most significant and seductive seems now to be futile and absurd. For instance, success in all of its various guises, being known and being praised; ostensible pleasures, like acquiring money or seducing women….In retrospect, all those exercise in self-gratification seem pure fantasy, what Pascal calls licking the earth.”
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf claims there are two kinds of wealth in life. “Richness of being,” and “richness of having”. Richness of having is an external experience and richness of being is an inner experience. We usually focus on richness of having. We think true happiness lies there. If only I had a dream house, fame, a bigger salary, financial security, a satisfying sex life – and so on – then I would be contented. We seek richness of having, but what we really want is richness of being. We want to be happy, joyful, contented, and free from anxiety, but in chasing “having”, the bottomless pit of our desires can never be filled.
Perhaps we should all try and get our priorities into some sort of perspective and not wait until we are old. I suggest that wealth, fame and possessions are gossamer stuff compared to Beloc’s philosophy: “There’s nothing worth the wear of winning, But laughter and the love of friends.”
No Going Back
I learned a bitter lesson in not seeing and loving my mother more before she died. In fact, I can’t bring myself to read her later diaries, but I am told by family that she felt desperately hurt by me in many ways. I hope she found it in her heart to forgive me before she died.
There is a sad story about the historian Thomas Carlyle that resonates vividly with me and I am sure you will see why. He wrote beautifully and with great insight about possessions: “Many men eat finer cookery, drink dearer liquors, but at the heart of them what increase of blessedness is there? Are they better, more beautiful, stronger, braver? Are they even what they call ‘happier’? Do they look with satisfaction on more things and human faces in this God’s Earth; do more things and human faces look with satisfaction on them? Not so.”
But knowing the theory of love and folly is one thing; it does not mean that we live by this wisdom.
Carlyle married his secretary Jane Welsh and during their quite happy marriage she became ill with cancer. Carlyle was working hard and failed to notice his wife’s deteriorating health very much. Eventually she was confined to her bed. Although Carlyle loved her, he gave her little time. After some years, Jane died and then Carlyle was obliged to return to a house that was bleakly empty and shatteringly lonely.
Sometime later, he discovered her diary on a shelf. On one entire page she had written a single line: “Yesterday he spent an hour with me and it was like heaven. I love him so.”
He understood the shattering reality that he had been too busy really to see how much he had meant to Jane. When he was preoccupied with work, he simply failed to notice her suffering or her great love for him
Then he read the words he could never forget. “I have listened all day for his steps in the hall but it is late and I doubt he will come today.”
Later that night, friends found him weeping and crouching by Jane’s grave. “If I had only known, if only I had known,” he cried to a silent heaven.
Jane’s death terminated Carlyle’s writing career. His last years were lonely and sad, and he died a bored and partial recluse.
Poor Thomas. Of course the moments whirl by and there is no rewind button for any of us. Thankfully since my mother’s death I have cherished my family. I recall, for example, the precious occasions when I drove our two daughters to the church altar to marry good, kind and faithful men. I vividly remember saying to myself then that I wished I could freeze those treasured moments forever.
One day the end will come and we can’t control that date either. But it isn’t all bad news. Unless we are no more than walking plumbing machines, each day we live, and each act of kindness and love moves from potential good to realised good, and will stay fixed in eternity – and will never be lost.