Today in America, we are often asked: “Do you want to upgrade?”
I want to respond: “Actually, I disagree with your premise.”
Rarely is the problem of materialism more evident than in the ongoing desire to “upgrade.” It’s not that your current model is broken or bad; it’s that you can do better. And because you can do better—the thinking goes—you should do better.
Pope Saint John Paul II promoted a word for this attitude: “consumerism.”
In 1995, he wrote:
“The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism.… The values of being are replaced by those of having. The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one’s own material well-being. The so-called “quality of life” is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions—interpersonal, spiritual and religious—of existence.”
Materialism interferes with the “interpersonal, spiritual, and religious” dimensions of existence? That’s quite an indictment. Yet, if we look clearly, it is undeniable.
Ironically, as communication technology becomes increasingly cordless, we become more tethered to them even as we grow less connected to all those around us. Examples abound.
When a family of six goes out to dinner and five of them pull out smartphones before appetizers are served, we are seeing a preference for the virtual over the real, for consumerism over the basic human goods.
To make matters worse, as the recent popes have observed, our culture often reduces people to the level of things. In a society that applauds “fifty shades” of monochromatic and mortal violations of the fifth, sixth, and ninth commandments, we mindlessly pay others top-dollar to have rock-bottom thoughts. And although technology itself is morally neutral, many people undoubtedly use it in a way that is spiritually harmful. For instance, though we might think that “Wi-Fi” stands for “Wireless Fidelity,” fidelity is often a casualty of wireless.
It may be easy to blame technology, but the problem of materialism and its effects go far deeper. As Saint John Paul indicated, once we succumb to materialism, it tends to dictate many areas of our lives and leaves us with a devastating lack of fulfillment. Indeed, materialism is a massive warehouse, carefully catalogued and meticulously crammed full of emptiness.
With each passing day, we seem to want materials more and more. And the sad part of it is why, exactly, we want them.
The Catholic sociologist Rene Girard posited a scary explanation. In the most damaging violation of the Tenth Commandment, we do not covet our neighbor’s goods. What we really want…what we really crave…what we really covet…is for our neighbor to covet our goods.
And it gets worse. In the quest for material success, we can often point to a person whom we are competing against: a neighbor, a business associate, or a family member. But in the desperate struggle for stuff and the attention that goes along with it, it is not one person we are competing against.
If poverty brings us closer to God and consumerism takes us further away, it is Three Persons that we are competing against. Because often the desire to upgrade only makes the path to sanctity steeper, thus damaging the spiritual dimension of our existence.
Many of us seem to have forgotten that, and I’ll offer myself as Exhibit A. For most of my life, I have read stories about the saints and how they embraced the spirit of poverty. I wanted the sainthood; just not the poverty. I could not figure out why the spirit of poverty was good. More likely, I did not want to figure it out. And I don’t think we want to figure it out as a culture. We would rather figure out wealth—it’s more fun.
While the spirit of wealth is the life of the party, the spirit of poverty sits alone in a corner, waiting for someone to ask it to dance. But it finds few suitors.
In Western culture, the reason that the spirit of poverty has failed to receive a proper eulogy is not because the spirit of poverty hasn’t died. Largely, it has. It is because we can no longer think of the words to praise it. We can’t remember why it was ever good.
We need to remember why spiritual poverty – the detachment from earthly things – is a good thing.
From a spiritual perspective, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. Is there Heavenly wealth without earthly poverty? Does a heavenly banquet simply follow endless earthly banquets? Are the mansions in Heaven meant to simply upgrade the mansions we lived in on earth?
What’s the solution? How do we regain the spirit of poverty?
It begins with the recognition that “upgrading” my material goods does not upgrade my life; that it often does the opposite.
Want to upgrade your life? Start going to Mass, not only on Sundays, but on weekdays. Say a rosary for those who truly suffer from dehumanizing poverty, and start carving out a place in your budget to support efforts to alleviate this poverty. Ask God for forgiveness. Teach your kids how much God loves the poor, and reinforce this with your own example. Thank God for loving you. Forego a dessert as mortification for the souls in Purgatory. Bake some cookies for the poor. Spend some time with the elderly.
Read a story to your kids. Give away your old clothes. Give away your new clothes. Forgive someone for something they did years ago.
Beg God for the spirit of poverty, and truly upgrade your life.