21 Sivan 5779 / Monday, June 24, 2019 | Torah Reading: Korach
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Living the Simple Life    

Living the Simple Life

What creates the urge in normal intelligent people to race around like gerbils on a wheel in order to earn higher and higher salaries so that they can buy and possess and consume?


Part 1 of 2



Let’s start with some astounding facts:


* Americans spend more than a trillion dollars a year on “non-essential” items.


* Americans are spending 100 billion dollars a year on watches, jewelry and phones.


* Americans now have more T.Vs in their homes than people, and the T.V.s are turned on more than 8 hours a day.


* There are more shopping malls than high schools in America.


* The size of American homes has tripled since the 1950s.


* 40% of the food in America is going to waste.


* The amount of “stuff” in peoples’ houses (an average of 230,000 items per home) has bulged to the point where in the lifetime of the average American he will lose 153 days of his life looking for lost sunglasses, keys and other “stuff” in the house.


* The storage facility business is a multi-billion dollar industry. There are more than 50,000 storage facilities in the U.S. to house all of the stuff that people don’t have room for in their big houses and which they don’t even use. If you could somehow connect all of the roofs of these storage facilities together, there would be enough room under that huge roof for every single American to stand (all 325 million of them!)


* And let’s not forget the multi-billion dollar home organizer industry that people are turning to in droves to help them organize all their stuff.


Here are 9 questions that we need answers for:


1. Are the “things” and “stuff” that people are buying and consuming making them any happier than they were when they had less?


2. Are today’s young people any happier than their grandparents, who had much less?


3. Why are people spending so much money on all this stuff? What is the cause?


4. How are people able to afford all this stuff?


5. What are peoples’ attitudes towards buying?


6. What are peoples’ attitudes towards working in order to get all this stuff? What motivates them to work so hard?


7. What are the effects on people of wanting and desiring all this stuff?


8. What does it mean that there is deep spiritual hunger growing amongst people now; even during this time of physical “plenty”?


9. And finally – what is the solution? What can we do to rectify the situation?


Here are the answers:


1. The studies consistently show that more materialism leads to less happiness and less materialism leads to more happiness. It doesn’t even seem to matter whether you can afford the new car and new home or whether you can’t afford them. The real problem is the “desire” for these things. There is something about “desire” itself that makes people sad and robs them of their natural peace of mind (whether they have the money for the stuff or not). We’ll learn more about this later.


2. Certainly today’s generation is not one iota happier than previous generations. Studies indicate the just the contrary - our grandparents’ generation was more content and happy with their lot than we are despite the plethora of luxury items that most people own. Just imagine what Rashi or the Rambam had in their homes. Even in today’s generation there are holy people who reject the culture of consumerism and materialism and they are the happiest people on the planet. The question is why?  We need to know what it is about actually saying “no” to the latest most modern luxuries that makes people feel more happy and peaceful inside.


3. In order to be happier and enjoy our lives more we need to know what causes us to be pulled after expensive things. What is it that creates the urge in normal intelligent people to race around like gerbils on a wheel (the wheel of fortune) in order to earn higher and higher salaries so that they can buy and possess and consume and flaunt and showcase their potency to the world.


The root cause for man’s desire to find “happiness” in non-spiritual pursuits and acquisitions was the failure of the first man and woman to resist the temptation to eat from the fruit of the Tree that G-d forbade them to eat from. The snake (or the evil inclination) convinced the woman that a normal tree had special powers to make her like G-d Himself. He convinced her that G-d Himself ate from the Tree and derived His power from it.


This idea that the Tree was a source of power that was separate from G-d and in some ways even superior to G-d was the first time in history that people had a desire to consume a commodity to make them “happy”. The Tree obviously had no power to make them happy. In fact it only made them sad, because once they ate from it, by necessity G-d had to move further away from them. He does the same thing with us every time we put our hope in some physical appliance, gadget, upgraded this or upgraded that. When G-d is “forced” to move away from us because we put our hope for fulfillment and ultimate happiness in “stuff” rather than in Him we look around and see less of G-d in our lives. This fills us with more existential anxiety which we try to dampen with even more purchases and greater strivings to possess and control and find “security” through the power of our own hands.


Material things are not the problem per se. It’s the investment of hope that we put into material possessions and money that is the real problem. The desire to be “successful” financially and to be able to afford a “nice” lifestyle stems from the arrogance of the first man and woman who failed the test of believing that everything comes from Hashem. Their behavior was arrogant because they believed that something other than Hashem could fulfill them. They lusted after the “secret” knowledge that would allow them to create their own world so to speak. But Hashem, who is in a sense bound by His own rules, cannot stay near an arrogant person. The pivotal see-saw of humility on one side and arrogance on the other side is at the core of these problems of over spending and looking for “happiness” in the idols of material wealth and possessions.


In my concluding article in this series, I will answer all of the remaining questions, in particular the harmful effects that materialism has on us – specific ways that we suffer from wanting things. Why G-d had to bring on this test of the availability of affluence and material plenty and why the teshuva movement (the return to Hashem) has become so strong in the midst of the affluence. Finally we will see how anyone who wants to pass the test and get out of a material lifestyle can do it and find real lasting happiness. If I was able to do this, anybody can!



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We invite you to visit Dr. Zev Ballen's popular daily web journal Spiritual Coaching.

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