Saturday, July 3, 2010

Contentment: Priceless

When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much more money he needed before he would feel satisfied, he famously replied, “Just a little more.”

It’s no secret that we are a consumer society. You can read all kinds of statistics about how many ads we see, how much we buy, how much we waste. People line up for hours to get the first iPads or the newest iPhones. The Dalai Lama laughs about his love of gadgets. When he was at a conference once, he passed an electronics store every day. By the end of the week, he was full of desire to have gadgets he didn’t even know the purpose of!

Our economy depends on our purchases. The wisdom of that is for someone else to debate. But what does it mean for us individually?

Do those purchases bring us happiness? Maybe some do. My cabin in the mountains, for example. I agonized about spending so much money on what was clearly a luxury purchase. Not that the cabin is luxurious (it’s not), but it was not a family necessity. Yet over the years, it has been the scene of many happy times, for our family and for the friends we share it with.

But what about all that jewelry in the bank safe deposit box? When I lived in Bangkok, jewelry stores were everywhere, with windows full of sparkling gems and walls dripping with deep yellow gold. I spent a good part of my salary in those stores. I rationalized it by telling myself that it was worth so much more (in the US) than what I paid for it. Well, that was true, but so what? Did I sell it and make profit? Do I even wear it? No, it sits safe and undisturbed in the dark at the bank.

In one of my favorite movies, Harold and Maude, Harold objects to Maude’s habit of just taking whatever suits her needs at the moment, a car for example. Here is part of the dialogue–

Harold: You hop in any car you want and just drive off?

Maude: Well, not any car. I like to keep a variety. I’m always looking for the new experience.

Harold: Maybe. Nevertheless, I think you’re upsetting people. I don’t know if that’s right.

Maude: Well, if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things, I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things. Now, with that in mind, I’m not against collecting things....

Having things is not the issue. Our attachment to things is what causes us pain. Our hope that our things will bring us happiness. That more things will bring us even more happiness.

The Tao Te Ching says, “He who knows enough is enough will always have enough.” My sister wrote this in beautiful calligraphy and I have it framed on my desk. A reminder that satisfaction is a choice. Like a Mastercard commercial – contentment: priceless.

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