Materialism: Enemy of the Family

by Dr. James Dobson

When I was a teenager, I had a recurring dream that invariably delighted me; the episode would always begin with me noticing a shiny dime near the sidewalk where I walked. As I reached down to retrieve it, two quarters would be uncovered in the soil. By grabbing those two coins, at least four half-dollars would appear underneath, and it was obvious that I had stumbled onto a numismatic fortune. I would begin shoveling money by the handfuls, while looking over my shoulder. Always standing or walking nearby were dozens of people who hadn’t noticed my discovery, and I was anxiously trying to stuff the cash in my pockets before being mobbed by competitors. There were slight variations to this theme (once I found millions of S&H Green Stamps) but a distinct element of greed was always represented. Now, 30 years later, I’m happy to say that I’ve recovered from this greedy nature; instead, I frequently dream that I’m standing immobilized while everyone else finds the money! That’s what 30 years of taxes and creditors have done to my adolescent aspirations.

What role do financial problems play in your mental life? It is likely that money matters are troubling to you, too, because this item produces worry and anxiety for the entire human family. Financial stress certainly affected the women who completed our Sources of Depression questionnaire, for it ranked as their fifth most troubling difficulty. Remember also that this survey was obtained in the early 1970s, when inflation was less threatening than it is today; now it seems that every business, every school, every hospital and every home is struggling for financial survival. Furthermore, the hemorrhage of gold into the oil- producing nations of the Middle East may continue to plague the rest of the world meaning the worst may be ahead. If economic depression comes, we may all have to learn to cope with its emotional consequence.

There are thousands of books available for those who want to gain control of their monetary resources, and I am no authority on that subject. Thus, my comments on this topic will be brief and to the point. My one contribution is in opposition to the lust for more and more things – leading us to buy that which we neither need nor can afford.

Though I can make no claim to wealth, I have tasted most of the things Americans hunger for: new cars, an attractive home and gadgets and devices that promise to set us free. Looking at those materialistic possessions from the other side of the cash register, I can tell you that they don’t deliver the satisfaction they advertise! On the contrary, I have found great wisdom in the adage, “That which you own will eventually own you!” How true that is. Having surrendered my hard-earned dollars for a new object only obligates me to maintain and protect it; instead of it contributing to my pleasure, I must spend my precious Saturdays oiling it, mowing it, painting it’ repairing it, cleaning it, or calling the Salvation Army to haul it off. The time I might have invested in worthwhile family activities is spent in slavery to a depreciating piece of junk.

Many summers ago, when my children were very young, I examined a swing set that was on display in a local toy store. It was shiny and well constructed, so I purchased an identical model for them. When the delivery men arrived, however, they left me with a long box containing 6,324 pipes, 28,487,651 bolts, 28,487,650 screws, and a set of instructions that would make Albert Einstein swear and bite his nails. For the next 48 hours, I sweated to accommodate bent parts, missing parts, and parts from a 1948 Ford thrown in just to confuse me. Finally, the wobbly construction sat upright, though by this time I had mauled the knuckles on my right hand while trying to force a half-inch screw through a three-eighths inch hole. However, the crusher came as I read the final line printed on the back side of the instructions; it said, “Please retighten all the bolts on the apparatus every two weeks to ensure its safety and .” What better example of materialistic slavery could there be’! Along with everything else which I dare not forget, I now have to devote every other Saturday to this tin monster, or else it’ll gobble up my children! That, friends and neighbors, is the price of ownership.

Let me ask you to recall the most worthless, unnecessary expenditure you have made in the last year. Perhaps it was an electric can opener that now sits in the garage, or a suit of clothes that will never be worn. Do you realize that this item was not purchased with your money; it was bought with your time, which you traded for money. In effect, you swapped a certain proportion of your allotted days on earth for that piece of junk which now clutters your home. Furthermore, no power on earth could retrieve the time you squandered on its purchase. It is gone forever. We are investing our lives in worthless materialism, both in the original expenditures and on subsequent upkeep and maintenance.

Do I sound a bit preachy in this discourse? Perhaps it is because I am condemning my own way of life. I am sick of the tyranny of things! But I am also addressing the “have nots,” those multitudes who are depressed because they lack something that either wasn’t invented or wasn’t fashionable 50 years ago. How many families are discontent with their two-bedroom house, when it would have been considered entirely adequate in the 1800s? How many men will have heart attacks this year from striving to achieve an ever increasing salary? How many families will court financial ruin just to keep up with the Jones’s, and then find to their dismay that the Jones’s have refinanced and are ahead again?

Let me conclude this discourse with one more thought. The utter folly of materialism was dramatically emphasized during my trip to England several years ago. As I toured the museums and historical buildings, I was struck by what I called “empty castles.” Standing there in the lonely fog were the edifices constructed by proud men who thought they owned them, But where are the men today? All are gone, and most are forgotten. The hollow castles they left behind stand as monuments to the physical vulnerability and impermanence of the men who built them. Not one survived to claim his possession. As Jesus said of the rich fool who was about to die and leave his wealth, “Then whose will those things be which thou hast provided?” (Luke 12:20).

I want to leave more than “empty castles” behind me when I die. I realize how rapidly my life is passing before my eyes. Time is like a well-greased string sliding through my taut fingers. I’ve tried vainly to hold it or even slow its pace, but it only accelerates year by year. Just as surely as the past 30 years evaporated so quickly, the next three or four decades will soon be gone. So there is no better time than now for me (and you) to assess the values that are worthy of my time and effort.

Having made that evaluation, I have concluded that the accumulation of wealth, even if I could achieve it, is an insufficient reason for living. When I reach the end of my days, a moment or two from now, I must look backward on something more meaningful than the pursuit of houses and land and machines and stocks and bonds. Nor is fame of any lasting benefit. I will consider my earthly existence to have been wasted unless I can recall a loving family, a consistent investment in the lives of people, and an earnest attempt to serve the God who made me. Nothing else makes much sense, and certainly nothing else is worthy of my agitation! How about you?

(The above article was published by FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1991)

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