It's ALMOST a cliché. Time and time again, you'll hear AA members talk about what's happened to them in the way of financial recovery, then quickly add, "But material things don't count. Money doesn't buy happiness. You don't have to drive a Cadillac to feel good."
Whatever its form, the statement makes me uneasy. It is true that excessive materialism is one of the curses of our age, and that many of us have come to grief while in pursuit of the god of business success. Others have been disillusioned when they found success and it turned to ashes in their grasp. And there's no doubt that material things are limited in their power to give us what we really need in life. Materialism should be modified. But dare we push this modification to the point of saying that material things don't count at all?
Sometimes, there's almost a trace of hypocrisy in these announcements. An AA member speaks at our group and tells with great joy of his emancipation from the need to own a Cadillac. Walking with him to the parking lot, I am then astonished to see him slide behind the wheel of his new Caddy for the trip home. If Cadillacs don't, count, why is he driving one? Why didn't he buy a compact and give the difference to charity?
Or take the occasional member who lectures the destitute down-and-outer. Outside, the temperatures are falling, and the newcomer wonders where he will sleep that night. He has stumbled confused into AA, partly for hope and partly to bum the price of a night's lodging. Before he knows it, somebody is telling him not to be preoccupied with "material things," because his first need is to get sober!
My point is not just to express disapproval of such thoughtlessness--many of us have been guilty of it. Rather, I think we should aim for a realistic view of material things, so that we don't make fools of ourselves by dismissing them out of hand, and at the same time don't make slaves of ourselves by letting materialism become our be-all and end-all.
It is obvious, too, that few people really believe anybody who speaks out against materialism or money. The world has few genuine Thoreaus or Gandhis, and most of us pursue money to a certain degree. We also live in a type of world that is virtually uninhabitable without money. Many of us could not even get to work without an automobile, and we have countless other fixed obligations to meet: shelter, clothing, heat, lights, food, taxes, education, medical expenses. A person who tried to get by without these necessities in our present society wouldn't be admired; he would be thought irresponsible.
The problem with materialism grows out of the false views we have towards money; money itself is not the problem. These false views involve a tendency to ascribe too much power to money, to see it as an answer to every human problem and need. Perhaps we are unconsciously inclined to assume that, since a certain amount of money is very good, increasing amounts will bring proportionate increases of good. But it does not work this way. The power of money is limited; it is completely ineffective in satisfying some needs, though it may be indispensable in satisfying certain others.
What will money do? In general, it will purchase comfort, convenience, and means of pleasure--material things. If you have money, you can live in a comfortable home, have appliances, automobiles, and services for your convenience, and seek pleasure through vacation trips and frequent entertainment.
But if a person is basically unhappy, he cannot be made happy by obtaining comfort and convenience. It is not at all uncommon to find some of the unhappiest people in fine suburban homes. This does not prove that fine suburban homes are bad for happiness. It only shows that the source of happiness is never in "things."
But it would be silly to leap from this observation to the belief that one can be happy though destitute. Unhappiness and actual destitution seem to go hand in hand. The destitute person is so deprived of the basic necessities of ordinary living that he becomes preoccupied with fear and need; hence, he is unhappy. A friend who has had several financial setbacks in his life tells me that he fears destitution, but not poverty. He sees poverty only as a low standard of living. As a rule, poor people still have a roof, three meals, and (in the U.S.) often a car of some kind. But destitute people have nothing. One could be poor and happy; one could rarely be destitute and happy.
I have found a personal answer by seeing material things as spiritual ideas. God made the physical world, as well as the spiritual and mental. It is our job to use material things properly, seeing them just as things to use and not as objects for either worship or condemnation. It is also our job to use spiritual ideas and principles properly, recognizing that, while they are superior to material things, they do not replace the material.
Perhaps we could get the most balanced view of this if we looked upon both money and spiritual principles as "tools" for good living. A competent artisan knows that he must have an assortment of tools in his kit to perform any job well, and he uses each tool for a specific purpose. He does not condemn the saw because it is not a good hammer, and he does not throw away his plane because it will not drill holes. He uses each tool for its intended purpose and completes the job.
As recovered alcoholics, we naturally want to live in reasonable comfort with all the happiness and personal fulfillment we can find. It is up to us to enhance this comfortable life with a healthy spiritual outlook--an outlook characterized by feelings of gratitude, goodwill, optimism, and unselfishness. Such an outlook includes a practical appreciation of the value in material things. We know, then, that material things do matter--but not to the exclusion of other values in life.
M. D. B.
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