Christians should read the New York Times with an ear for stories which shed light on the condition of souls in contemporary society. Even when the story is from an individual living a life largely outside the perspective of our own normal parishioners, the narratives often retain evidences of how our “without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12) neighbors are thinking and dreaming and living.
The pen of nouveau riche entrepreneur Graham Hill gives us one such story, as Hill chronicles the rise and fall of his lust for material goods in a piece titled, “Living with Less. A Lot Less. The many things I consumed ended up consuming me.”
Phase One: Conspicuous Consumption
Let’s listen in as Hill tells his tale:
It started in 1998 in Seattle, when my partner and I sold our Internet consultancy company, Sitewerks, for more money than I thought I’d earn in a lifetime.
To celebrate, I bought a four-story, 3,600-square-foot, turn-of-the-century house in Seattle’s happening Capitol Hill neighborhood and, in a frenzy of consumption, bought a brand-new sectional couch (my first ever), a pair of $300 sunglasses, a ton of gadgets, like an Audible.com MobilePlayer (one of the first portable digital music players) and an audiophile-worthy five-disc CD player. And, of course, a black turbocharged Volvo. With a remote starter!
I was working hard for Sitewerks’ new parent company, Bowne, and didn’t have the time to finish getting everything I needed for my house. So I hired a guy named Seven, who said he had been Courtney Love’s assistant, to be my personal shopper. He went to furniture, appliance and electronics stores and took Polaroids of things he thought I might like to fill the house; I’d shuffle through the pictures and proceed on a virtual shopping spree.
Hill gains – suddenly and without a lifetime of labor – more money than he would have expected to earn “in a lifetime.” Hill may not have been impoverished before the windfall, but we get the idea that he didn’t have grand amounts of money before it. That is, his story lacks a “rag-to-riches” scenario, but it still has the “normal-to-riches” dynamic.
What does Hill do with all the money? Does he do something different – something unexpected – with his “new money,” or does he do exactly what we expect most folks would do?
Hill takes the expected course of actions. He spends money left and right in ways that his pre-riches self could have hardly even recognized.
Phase Two: Disillusionment with ‘stuff’
Now, we hear Hill chronicle how all the new consumer products quickly became the consumer of his joy and peace of mind.
My success and the things it bought quickly changed from novel to normal. Soon I was numb to it all. The new Nokia phone didn’t excite me or satisfy me. It didn’t take long before I started to wonder why my theoretically upgraded life didn’t feel any better and why I felt more anxious than before.
My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.
Phase Three: Introspection
Hill provides us with the moral lesson he learned from his experience. Buying lots and lots of stuff does not bring greater happiness. Of course, one might counter Hill and argue that modest purchases can provide an uplift, but not the egregious purchasing Hill made.
Nevertheless, Hill’s basic point is solid.
We live in a world of surfeit stuff, of big-box stores and 24-hour online shopping opportunities. Members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products.
There isn’t any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true.
Phase Four: Voluntary Minimalism
In the end, Hill opts for a different type of life – travel, romance and an entrepreneurial focus on “meaningful work.”
For me, it took 15 years, a great love and a lot of travel to get rid of all the inessential things I had collected and live a bigger, better, richer life with less.
… I met Olga, an Andorran beauty, and fell hard. My relationship with stuff quickly came apart. I followed her to Barcelona when her visa expired, and we lived in a tiny flat, totally content and in love before we realized that nothing was holding us in Spain. We packed a few clothes, some toiletries and a couple of laptops and hit the road. We lived in Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Toronto with many stops in between.
A compulsive entrepreneur, I worked all the time and started new companies from an office that fit in my solar backpack. … My life was full of love and adventure and work I cared about. I felt free, and I didn’t miss the car and gadgets and house; instead I felt as if I had quit a dead-end job.
The relationship with Olga eventually ended, but my life never looked the same. I live smaller and travel lighter. I have more time and money. Aside from my travel habit — which I try to keep in check by minimizing trips, combining trips and purchasing carbon offsets — I feel better that my carbon footprint is significantly smaller than in my previous supersized life.
A Christian response
When Hill describes his acquisition and disillusionment with stuff, he sounds a lot like Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes:
And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
Hear Hill’s conclusion:
Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.
Then, consider how his words parallel Solomon’s:
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)
But wait – shouldn’t a Christian response go further?
Even as we commend Hill for finding some bit of earthly wisdom about the vanity of materialism, shouldn’t we hope he also gains an eternal perspective on the purpose and meaning of life?
If as we Christians believe, the cross of Calvary is the crux of all God’s work of redemption, then salvation is more than a rich man deciding to love “Olga and travel” instead of a Volvo and a swanky apartment in Soho.
As Christians, we do pray that our materialist driven neighbors would see that we are living for something more than the latest iPhone or Ivy League education for our children. But, that “something more” that we live for must be Jesus Christ himself – not simply more cultivated and cerebral pleasures.
Does Hill ever acknowledge God’s sovereign Lordship over his life? Absolutely not. He simply moves from one form of self-love to another. The first self-love took 3,000 square feet and many closets. It runs more parallel to “The American Dream” that many middle class folks pursue. Hill’s second self-love takes 500 square feet and, well, whatever Hill wants (he still has a ton of money). This self-love runs more philosophical and sophisticated.
Either way, whether mindlessly-materialist or millionaire-asceticism, Hill is an idolater who does not love God.
What is the chief end of man? The Westminster shorter catechism states:
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
Or, as Solomon concluded the book of Ecclesiastes:
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13-14)
Loving our “stuff” less is good. But, loving God who created everything we see … that is what we were made for.