05/11/2010 03:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 'If-Only' Folly: The Insatiable Emptiness of Consumerist Culture

I find myself on occasion tempted to enter fully into a moment, but the passage of the self that is entering is blocked by a strange thought: "The rain falling and the birds gathering down at the end of the block, the scent of budding spring, the silence of the neighborhood, now and then a sweet note from violin practice across the street, the thereness of the sky, of light, of my own seeing and being a part of existence -- my entrance into the full enjoyment of this moment would be complete, if only..."

Everything that matters is wrapped up in the eternity of that silent moment. Most obvious is contentment, even amid daily struggles, but also, corollary to that, is faith and the capacity to escape worry, an implied patience in regard to the future that walks hand in hand with hope, love, and finally joy with all its fruits, including both happiness and sadness, and genuine power over all the small separations and divisions that define death.

Yet, I am blocked by contingencies, hence the blank at the end of the first paragraph. I could be here now in silence if circumstances were somehow different, if all my debts were paid off, if I had a new car, if my kids were in better schools, if I were financially stable, or if I had more money or more recognition, if only ad nauseum. If I lived in some alternate universe, perhaps, this moment would hold me not as a captive, but as one captivated and fully aware.

I do not know how many times I have read the parable of the fool in the Gospel of Luke. It's the one where the rich man has a huge harvest, and he says to himself that he will destroy his barns and build bigger ones. Once the bigger barns are built, he figures, "I'll say to myself ... you have many goods stored up for many years; take your ease: eat, drink and be merry." In response to this, God says, "You fool! Tonight you are going to die, and then whose will those things be which you have provided?"

When I first read this passage twenty years ago, I thought Jesus was condemning eating, drinking and merrymaking, and that superficial interpretation kind of stuck. But it isn't what he is saying at all. Jesus is rather pointing out the problem of putting one's trust in things or circumstances on the one hand, and on the other the difficulty of never being able to find satisfaction -- never arriving at the point where one can actually eat, drink and be merry, or, as it were, enter the moment.

I may think I'm not like that, though. I'm the exception. I wouldn't be like the rich man who isn't satisfied with his profits! If I only had the chance, a huge harvest, a lottery win, for instance. I wouldn't seek to build bigger barns, but would begin the merrymaking immediately. I promise. Isn't it odd how such statements amount to the same thing the rich man is saying, and that by saying such things I prove myself to be exactly like him? My entrance into the moment is, like the rich man's, contingent on something else, bigger barns and stored-up wealth, winning the lottery, getting a great job, buying a house, marrying, or fill in the blank -- the "if-only" folly.

This realization struck a deep chord in me. We can appreciate the gift of each moment we have now; it does not need to be draped in a more perfect circumstance in order for us to receive it. The gift lies before us in each instant, moment to moment, building into hours and days, and the only appropriate response is gratitude and enjoyment. The gift of God, of life, of happiness and contentment does not lay in the things we own (or think we own), or in the particular circumstances in which we live.

The reality of the principle should have always been clear to me given the context of the parable. It is preceded by the request of someone in the crowd to whom Jesus is speaking. The guy wants Jesus to arbitrate a dispute. He says, "Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus refuses, and instead says, "Beware of covetousness. Your life does not consist in the abundance of the things you possess." Then he gives the parable of the fool, whose life is required of him that night, and to whom God asks, "Whose will those things be which you have provided?"

What a huge issue in a consumerist culture. We work hard, and things are our reward. Ownership becomes the first right and the final virtue. From a young age we are reared on advertising and occupational optimism. There are multitudes of goods to acquire that purport to make you happy, and if you put enough effort into it, you can be anything you want to be! The more money you make, the happier you will be. The more things you acquire, the more fulfilled you will be as a person, but more than that, you will be a better person, a person of worth, because in a consumerist culture the person who contributes to wealth the most has the greatest value. The more value, the more privileges you win -- the big house, the nice car, the health care. One's existence is justified by being a productive member of society, and to not be productive, or to be poor, in this scheme, is to be unjust, is shameful, and is demonized and stigmatized.

There are some who teach that real faith will result in riches, that wealth and consumption are the satisfying fruits of trusting God, and therefore the poor are obviously those who lack faith. Just send a dollar, and God will arrange for you to get back at least ten, if not a hundred. Despite the fact that this is an obvious scam, it's interesting how many people fall for it, who see affluence as its own reward, who on some level believe that comfort and possessions equate to the salvific experience and consist of life's final meaning.

But we who strive to find meaning in possessions are never able to attain that plateau which has been promised in the fog of material wealth, so we continue to strive to build bigger and bigger barns with no end in sight. Contentment is just around the corner. One thing is acquired, and then suddenly something new is needed. Jesus says that one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things one possesses.

The error of the fool was not only to imagine that his life and security could be found in affluence, but that his things actually belonged to him, that he actually owned them. Yet St. Ambrose writes, "The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die." St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on poverty and wealth, says there is no need to build bigger barns, that we already have all the barns that we need, "the stomachs of the poor."

These statement are absolutely contrary to our culture in which we imagine that we work in order to own what we have, and that in our possessions our life consists. Property and money become closer to us than our neighbor, more important to us than genuine virtue, and this plays itself out in the way we live, in our frustrations over things that break or get lost or stolen, in our fear of losing what we have, in our fear of the poor whom we castigate and blame for their plight because we are afraid of becoming like them.