God loves to outdo us in generosity
A few years ago, my husband was in a fender-bender that, while not seriously injuring him, did destroy the 13-year old Honda Civic we had purchased with money given to us on our wedding day. Since we both work for the Church, and we have three children enrolled in Catholic schools, we didn’t exactly have thousands of dollars sitting around waiting to be spent on a new car, and we likewise didn’t want to assume a large car payment given our other financial obligations. So, we put out the word among friends and family that we were looking for a reliable used car.
As luck (and God’s providence) would have it, a classmate of mine from law school called one morning to tell me about a colleague of his who was selling a used Lexus. It was eight years old, with 80,000 miles on it, but in good shape and very reliable. After a test drive, my husband negotiated a price with the seller that enabled us to purchase it with the cash we had received from the insurance settlement.
At first, I was thrilled. Me, driving a snazzy (albeit used) Lexus! With a CD player, a sun roof and heated seats! In short order, however, I began to notice myself being extremely self-conscious, especially as I drove into the parking lot at the office, where generally everyone drives modest cars. Doubt and guilt began to creep into my thoughts: “Am I setting a bad example?” “Does this look too pretentious?” I found myself quickly apologizing to anyone who asked me about my new set of wheels. “Wow, what a nice car!” someone would remark and, instead of thanking them and moving on to something important, I would find myself blurting out: “It’s used! It had 80,000 miles on it! Our car was totaled and this was all that came along!” I think I worried a lot of my friends who looked at me as if to say, “Um, it’s a nice car. Did you have a hard day at work or something?”
I happened to mention my musings to a friend, a consecrated member of the Focolare, a Catholic lay movement founded during the Second World War. Women who are “consecrated” members of Focolare have lives very similar to those of women religious or nuns – they have vows of poverty and who lives very simply in community. My co-worker seemed puzzled when I explained that I wasn’t sure about driving such a luxury vehicle, even if it was eight years old. “It was a gift from God,” she said to me. “Why are you not accepting it from Him with joy?” Her comments reminded me that all things, even material ones, are gifts, gifts that God freely bestows on each of us.
But yet … there are moral hazards to focusing too closely on material things, even beautiful ones. There are practical hazards as well, and those are known to people of no faith or religious practice, along with those of us who profess to follow Christ. There’s likely not one American citizen who doesn’t know someone who is in trouble with credit cards (or who hasn’t been in that kind of trouble themselves). While occasionally, credit card debt is accumulated due to circumstances beyond one’s control (like unexpected medical bills or a major appliance breakdown) it’s often caused by people living beyond their means. Witness the surge in the popularity of shows like “Hoarders” and books like Peter Walsh’s “Enough Already!” and websites like Flylady.net (an online personal coach to manage C.H.A.O.S., aka, “Can’t have anyone over syndrome”), and you know that something is amiss when so many people – especially women — feel that their possessions have overwhelmed them.
When analyzing the importance of “things” – beautiful things, expensive things – from a moral perspective, two questions I know I need to ask myself are, “Is this (clothing, car, jewelry, furniture, home) the goal of my life?” “Do I possess my things or do my things possess me?” After all, who among us women hasn’t complained about the piles of laundry, the dry cleaning bills, and keeping the kids from scratching the new coffee table? How many hours did the staff of Imelda Marcos take to care of her 1,000 handbags and 1,000 pairs of shoes? Who organized them, stored them, cleaned them and repaired them? All that takes time, and while I am guessing no one reading this has quite the volume Imelda did, we likely don’t have the staff she had to take care of her things, either. Things not only cost money, but they cost us in time.