The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Attitude of Gratitude
G. K. Chesterton only got it half-way right when he said: "There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less."
I've often used that quotation when explaining the concept of voluntary simplicity, because it does such a great job of highlighting two contrasting approaches to life. Over the years, though, I've come to see that Chesterton doesn't capture the full depth of the problem, especially in our consumer culture.
He's absolutely right that one way to "get enough" -- enough property and possessions, enough novel and exciting experiences -- is to desire less of them. Getting our desires in line with our reality is an approach affirmed by many wise traditions. As the Tao Te Ching put it, "When you realize you have enough, then you are truly rich."
But the first option that Chesterton names just doesn't work. The accumulation of more and more will never be a way to "get enough." Continued accumulation is a path of unending escalation, a constant quest for more which never arrives at a feeling of enough. Accumulating more and more may be driven by the desire for enough, but it cannot satisfy it.
Continued accumulation is a flawed path to satisfaction, but it is a pervasive part of our culture and our economy. That's a problem which should be of deep concern to churches on many levels -- practically, ethically and spiritually.
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The constant striving for more which characterizes consumer culture is a blight on the planet. The expansion of possessions far in excess of any need is a significant factor in the depletion of the Earth's resources, and in the pollution of its air and water. Our ceaseless desire for more has serious ecological consequences.
Accumulating more and more gives us families with more cars than drivers, closets overflowing with more stuff than we can use, sprawling storage facilities where families warehouse the surplus that they can't stand to discard, and dumps brimming with stuff that is deemed worthless. The path of accumulation takes us to ever-larger houses (my daily commute takes me through an affluent neighborhood where big homes are torn down to build gigantic mansions) and ever-larger cars (SUVs and trucks outsell smaller vehicles more than 2-to-1). Consumerism entices us to collect more and fancier electronic gadgets, and hooks us into an ongoing quest for current fashions.
The desire for new experiences and fresh excitement has generated "adventure vacations" in far-away locations, and has expanded motorized recreation such as the snowmobiles and jet skis which ravage our mountains and waterways with noise, pollution and the disruption of wildlife. Practically, the desire for more is a disaster.
It is an ethical problem, too. When we see the accumulation of more and more as an acceptable, normal, and even virtuous way of life, we give our blessing to the wasteful use of precious resources, the generation of trash and pollution, the dramatic gap between rich and poor, and the diminished opportunities of future generations. In today's world -- with its rapidly expanding human population, its limited resources, and its natural systems pushed past the ability to recover or restore -- the desire for more and more must not be seen as an ethically appropriate choice.
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Churches should be in the forefront of those critiquing the ethical dimensions of our consumer culture. But alongside the moral dimensions of the problem, there are equally important spiritual matters that should be of central importance to churches.
As people of faith, we are called to be in a thanks-filled relationship with God, to live from "an attitude of gratitude." If our faith is vibrant, we will be joyful and thankful at all times. The admonition to "give thanks" is found throughout scripture. The wise instructions found in Colossians 3 bind together love, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude as essential components of a faithful and transformed life in Christ.
When we fall into the trap of accumulating more and more, though, thankfulness is hard to find. When we don't feel like we have enough, and when the stuff that we do have doesn't seem good enough, we're far from a spirit of gratitude.
We're inundated with advertising, and it has one incessant message: however much we have, and however good it is, it isn't enough. That's an abusive message, and it is a spiritually damaging message. Advertising, along with other aspects of consumer culture, infects us with a spirit of pervasive dissatisfaction.
When we believe that we're in constant need of more, when we feel in our guts that we don't have enough, then what reason do we have to give thanks? If it seems like our needs aren't being adequately met, why should we be grateful? If we don't have the levels of affluence and prosperity that we feel we deserve, then we've been slighted, not blessed.
If, on the other hand, we learn to moderate our desires and genuinely believe that we have enough, then we can discover the rich condition of gratitude. When we appreciate and affirm what we have, we can find sufficiency in our possessions and opportunities. We can discover abundance -- a true sense of having enough -- and along with it we can also discover generosity, compassion, and the joy of living within appropriate limits.
The unending quest for more poisons our spirits just as it destroys our planet. The quest for more is grounded in a constant dissatisfaction which is the antithesis of faith.
For purely practical reasons, churches need to join with other concerned institutions in preserving the resources and stability of the planet. For ethical reasons, we need to address the inequalities and damage that are associated with excessive affluence and consumption.
But at the very core of our mission as churches, as we work to bring our communities into loving and joyous relationship with God, we must cultivate an attitude of gratitude which is in stark contrast to the unending quest for more.
It is wonderful -- and not at all surprising -- that a rich and vibrant spirituality also points us toward sustainability and ecological health.
This issue of Eco-Justice Notes updates and expands a message of the same name first distributed on May 19, 2006
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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