Imagine if we truly listened to this particular commandment:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.-Exodus 20:17
No, I’m not trying to get us to be biblical literalists, but I do think that this commandment bears some thought, prayer, and reflection. Perhaps the reason I bring this up is that I am a world-class coveter of the highest degree.
When I write, I do most of my work in at the kitchen table. One of my biggest covets is a renovated kitchen. You have no idea just how much I want that kitchen. WANT! NOW! Recently I visited with some family members in another state, and I was awed by what they had done with their kitchen. I have to actively remind myself not to think about it, or else I will start doing some obsessed-kitchen-covet.
The hard part is, at least as I see it, is how we live in a culture immersed in advertising and planned obsolescence based appliances, with an economy hell-bent on growth that comes more from spending than saving. Everything around us tells us that we “deserve” the best and that we should go pursue it. There are more than a few practical and spiritual problems contained therein.
Lately I have been struggling with my own “I-want” impulse, the coveting of that kitchen, not to mention a dozen other things that I long for. Another thing that sits on my heart these days is television advertising and the concept of coveting. It really bothers me, even when I am drawn into the seductive wanting offered by these commercials.
Here is one example, the commercial for the iPhone which touts that “every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera.” It is alluring for me to watch, because I am one of those people who uses their iPhone to take zillions of photos. This is not all bad, but there is something inherently narcissistic about it. And I think of the great luxury of owning such a thing, when other people have nothing to eat. Now that obsessive picture taking is even more offensive to me – and yes, I’m the one doing it.
I’m not one for making things all good or all bad, but I have to wonder about the price to the soul of such things. God did ask us not to covet for a reason. Not because “things” are inherently good, but an endless longing for such things is such a barrier between us and God.
When we covet, it seems to me as if we put blackout shade on the window to the soul where God gazes in, and we redirect our energy to someplace else where there is a false light. That false light catches our attention and it will not let go, or rather – we will not let go.
Somehow this ties to a kind of productivity (oh here I go, all Martha and Mary again!) that appeals to humans, especially American humans. If I work hard enough I can get this or that. A new kitchen, a new iPhone, a new pair of shoes, a new car. This is another barrier to God, the one where we allow ourselves the egotistical audacity to believe that we are the ones who make things happen.
Now I’m not saying that God does nothing, and I’m not saying a new car is a bad thing, and I’m not saying that productivity is a problem.
The problem it seems to me is this great “I want” that turns it all into some kind of false pursuit that leads us away from God. I’m not sure that I have any real solution, save the hairshirt and the hut in the woods that is off the grid… but I don’t think that that is a solution either. The hairshirt implies we can even create our own suffering, and the retreat to the woods isn’t so great either. Some are meant to be hermits, but to be Catholic is to be of and in the world, so I don’t buy that withdrawing from society thing.
Perhaps awareness is a starting point, letting go of some things that distract us, and turning more intentionally towards God is a must. It is hard to ignore the barrage of messages that elicit and feed this great “I want,” but to ignore the problems associated with the constant urging of desire, is to live with a great spiritual challenge.
What are your thoughts about how to do this in a world based on making us want our neighbor’s every material good?
I find it no surprise that the last Beatles single was “I Me Mine”, given the emotional and material tensions which had driven wedges between the Fab Four.
I’m very odd (for an American, at least) in that I prefer to drive a manual transmission car. Only about ten percent of cars sold in the US are manual. My parents, ever the iconoclasts, continued to drive “stick” until their left knees and backs indicated otherwise. Unlike most of our friends, my brother and I learned to shift and steer at the same time.
After my last car’s engine literally blew up (even the donation company didn’t want to take it off my hands), I thankfully inherited a “new” 15 year old car for free. Only driven to the supermarket and church and back. Only two pedals! I looked the gift horse in the mouth as I cursed the automatic transmission for not driving like I would drive the car.
Yet, a relative thought well enough of her nephew to give her old car to him when he couldn’t afford a car of his own. Thought well she did — I’ve taken to the car, now bumper-stickered and strewn with old cassette tapes. Yeah, the car has a cassette player (remember them?)
Hopefully, many more happy miles ahead, thanks to the charity of another. This is one time when it’s a blessing to be shiftless.
You had me at manual transmission – how I miss driving one! I am typically the person with the 15 year old car. I only have a much newer one now due to an inheritance here. I would rather have my crappy old car and my sister-in-law than just having her car.
As you know I don’t often comment because I never think I have anything worthwhile to contribute. However your comments make me want to express my opinion. I think our society in many ways has become a “throw away” culture. If something quits working or gets damaged, we throw it away and get a new one. I just don’t think we worry about taking something in to get it fixed instead of replacing it. Which leads into the idea of always wanting the newest, greatest version of something we already have. Our family teases my hubby all the time because he chooses to keep his very old, doesn’t always work, cell phone instead of replacing it with the newest “smart phone”. We keep telling him the Smithsonian called and whats his phone!!! In my opinion, this leads to much coveting – – you have the newest gadget, I must go get one!!!
And since I’ve spouted off this much, I’ll just add another thought. I think this “throw away” thinking applies to how we treat other people. Not always, but I do see it – – If you can’t do anything for me I can’t be bothered with you. I’ll covet someone else who can give me what I want/need.
Oh my beautiful friend Anna! You have spoken such words of wisdom here; you know I always think you have something important to say. It is so true that we “throw away” so many things – people included. That is a loaded topic and you have expressed a great truth. Thank you!
I don’t really covet what I neighbor has. I am happy that they have it and are able to live as they wish. I just covet stuff that I want!! lol!!!
Linda – I have that problem, too!
Fran your reflection here is so interesting to me because I have always placed the emphasis of this commandment more on the neighbor than the object. I tend to interpret “though shalt not covet your neighbor’s XYZ” as a rule against envy more so than one against excessive materialism. I guess that’s because I feel envy is more insidious than simple material excess, and in that way it becomes more dangerous. If “I want” creates creates distance between us and God, then “I want what you have–I deserve it more than you–it should be mine so I’m gonna take it!” separates us entirely. How many wars have been waged in the name of “It should be mine!”?
Having said that, I am totally with you on the whole iPhone camera thing! Not long after my son was born, my husband got me my iPhone to help with my postpartum. (Ironically, that was not as materialistic as it may sound!) My son had trouble nursing, and as a result, I was literally glued to the rocking chair nursing and pumping around the clock. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t talk to anybody, I could barely go anywhere in the beginning, so my iPhone was not only my renewed connection to friends and family through text, but it was also what I used to read the news and books and feel connected to the outside world again. (It was just so much easier to manage while holding an infant than a laptop or even a book). An unintended perk of the phone was that I could take approximately 50 pictures a day of my new son! I think I literally snapped dozens of pictures a day for the first two years of his life, until I finally admitted to myself that it was ridiculous and excessive and I forced myself to stop it! I knew that I would never do anything with 90 percent of the pictures I took, that they would all eventually disappear into the ether, even if I spent decades backing them up onto thumb drives or CD’s, but I couldn’t resist. I finally realized that I had become obsessed with documenting and recording my own life, or at least the most important thing in my life (my son of course), and then I finally accepted that my obsessive picture taking was some kind of cliche fear of death. I was terrified my life was going to pass me by, and I didn’t want to miss a second of it, which of course was exactly what I was doing every time I looked at it through the lens of a camera phone instead of just enjoying it and living it! Which brings us back to materialism, because can’t all material pursuits really be traced back to some kind of cliche fear of death?
So to answer your question, I don’t know that I have a solution, although I may have stumbled onto the hint of one. I have recently taken up a 5 – 2 diet, which is a cheater’s version of an alternate-day-fasting diet, and the unexpected spiritual reflection that has accompanied fasting two days a week has been, well, an added bonus. I started the 5 – 2 diet not so much for weight loss but for general health reasons. (It seems that people who restrict calorie intake in one form or another on a regular basis are incredibly healthy and live significantly longer, but I won’t get into all that right now!) On the fast days, I don’t fully fast. I eat a very healthy 500 calorie meal, and then on the other five days of the week, I pretty much eat whatever I want. I didn’t realize when I started the plan how guilty it would make me feel about how luxurious our eating habits really are. Truly, almost everything we eat can be called an excess. And the funny thing is that the reason I realize this is not because of what I eat on my normal days, but because of what I eat on my fast days. I had no idea how much food I could fit into a 500 calorie meal until I tried, and most days I struggle to keep my calorie intake under 2500. (I won’t even go into how all of a sudden I literally had more food than I could eat before it went bad in my fridge). So I guess the hint toward a solution that I found is in the vein of asceticism, but not so drastic. I think if we make a regular habit of depriving ourselves, even if it’s only one or two days a week, and then the rest of our week we go on living without restriction, then the lesson from the “fast” days begins to shape our “normal” days in unexpected ways.
As always, thank you for the excellent post! (and sorry for the long-winded comment!)
Nicky, our long overdue meet up must happen soon. We have so much to discuss! Thanks for your very thoughtful and wise comment.
Another excellent post, Fran! I find myself wanting things that other people have; not their things, but things like them. I am envious of finished houses, of cars that run with no fear of breaking down, of paid off debt and brand spanking new clothes. I find myself thinking that I deserve these things. But there are folks with no homes at all, women who walk miles for water, people living on a wing and a prayer, and people who have lost everything in storms or from war. I should be grateful for what I have.
The images you present will be on my heart. So many with so little. Thank you Paula!
bravo, Fran, well said! Coveting has been around since we humans have been around-Cain & Abel; King David, to mention those of the Bible. The only thing I think sets today’s covetousness on a higher level is the electronics so prevalent in our world’s society. Caution is no longer a byword for us. It saddens me so much that I dare not dwell upon it.