Jesus said it best. "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul" (Mark 8:36). But if you don't like the admonition of that spiritual master, listen to the atheist Bertrand Russell. "It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents men (sic) from living freely and nobly." Or there is the Lakota Native American Sitting Bull, speaking of the white man. "The love of possessions is a disease among them."
Stuff or the recognition that comes from it will never make us happy. Yet we do all kinds of crazy, irrational things - even endangering our lives - to acquire that stuff and recognition. Earlier this month in Florida, 32-year-old Edward Archbold died after winning a roach-eating contest. Why would anyone in their right mind eat hundreds of roaches? It wasn't only for the prize - a python. Archbold did not really want that big snake; mainly he wanted the fame, prestige and money he thought would come from winning that crazy contest.
When ABC refused to allow Nik Wallenda to get out of a contractual obligation to wear a safety harness during his historic wire walk across Niagara Falls last June, he complained but to no avail. However, when Wallenda wire walks across the Grand Canyon next summer, the hated tether won't be on his ankle. Wallenda said, "I'm clear and free." Clear and free to risk killing himself - as his father did in a 1978 fall from a high wire. Nik Wallenda like Archbold is after the fame, prestige and money that risking his life would bring him.
Does anyone doubt that we have a crazy, screwed-up world? Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees makes $29 million a year, $275 million on his 10-year contract. Let's put aside whether all that money makes A-Rod happy. I doubt it, but do you know how many teachers salaries $275 million would fund? How many counselors in our schools? How many police officers in our streets? How many real, honest-to-God jobs? I know professional sports is a billion-dollar business, but is it more important than society's basic needs?
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has issued restrictions, approved by the Board of Health, on sales of large sugary drinks in many dining places in New York City.
It is a modest attempt to curb the growing obesity problem plaguing our nation. But recently the American soft-drink industry and several New York City restaurants filed a lawsuit that aims to overturn Bloomberg's modest proposal. Is the soft-drink industry trying to protect their profits? Are they motivated by money? As Sarah Palin would say, "you betcha." They don't give a hoot in hell for the health of their customers - or for the well-being of our nation. The soft-drink industry's law suit against Bloomberg's proposal resonates with my initial premise; it considers profits, wealth and stuff as most important.
But back to our own lives. Do we really think that a bigger home will make us happy? Will prestige in our jobs, placement of our children in impressive universities fulfill our families' basic needs? I don't think so. The real riches of life are not material. They are of the spirit. They are infinitely more precious than the stuff and prestige about which we spend so much time obsessing. "Happiness is an inside job."
Moses Maimonides told us that "Man's obsession to add to his wealth and honor is the chief source of his misery." That wise old Jewish philosopher was right on. But so what? If money, prestige and honor are not success, what is? What is it, when life is over, that we want to leave behind? What do we want our legacy to be?
Ralph Waldo Emerson has an shrewd answer. "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success."
It's not stuff.