I came across a story last week that made me think about today’s topic for our ongoing discussion about the economy and our money.
A new luxury hotel in France offers guests the chance to live as a rodent for the night – complete with fur costumes and a romantic hamster wheel for two. The place is called Hamster Villa.
It is almost too good to be true. A metaphor on a silver plate for today’s sermon.
I want to spend the next few minutes thinking about our search for happiness. This is more complex than the simple argument that money can’t buy you happiness. It seems reasonable to say that not having enough money to spend on the basic necessities of life and not having anything left over for a vacation once in a while is to be in a position of some dissatisfaction. The question economists are finally asking, however, is when is enough, enough. Because it is just as clear to say that raising our incomes does not necessarily raise our level of happiness.
It was in the 1990’s that we as a society had reached the pinnacle of our apparent ability to do whatever we wanted. We were at the top of the world, and our money seemed to be growing on trees. Our glory was short-lived. We begin to feel uneasy even before the descent. As one economist put it, “Our proud self-image of the sovereign consumer shrank to that of the pitiful character of a Caspar Milquetoast, the helpless consumer who gets oppressed and harassed, cheated and shortchanged, even poisoned, from every side.” The dream of stuff and even the actual stuff, was no longer making us happy, if it ever did.
Why has this happened? Like other issues we’ve dealt with, the answer to that question has to do with the way we have uncritically assumed the economists view that a good state of affairs consists of one in which the greatest number of people are able to seek the greatest happiness. Happiness, in the classical economic view, is at the very center of our evaluation of the success or failure of economic systems. The problem with that idea is that we make a claim that nothing else matters so much; things like liberty, equality, peacefulness , philanthropy, do not count in the economic metric.
Even more troubling, is that in the process of making happiness central to our evaluation of economic success, we link happiness, with economic well being. When we are frustrated in our goals for happiness, it can only be because we have not properly engaged the economic engine to our fullest capacity. I remember thinking to myself back in the 90’s as I was about to embark on a career in the ministry that if I had the chutzpah what I’d really be doing is get into the dot-com world and make my millions. In other words — part of the language introduced to me as a new entrant in the world of the free market told me that my happiness would be dependent on a choice I was about to make — ministry or venture capitalism, relative only to the money that choice would yield. And in fact, economists generally consider what a person chooses in the market to be synonymous with what a person can do most lucratively. But I had just come off of a few years serving a couple of autistic men, not making much money, a summer at a hospital as a chaplain, making no money and realizing in that I was happy.
Next November, about a year from now, many of you, I hope will be part of a trip to the Gulf Coast to do some continuing and much needed reconstruction after the last few severely destructive hurricanes ripped through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. We’ll be going, for a few reasons, at least. Of course, we’re going because we think Jesus is right — to serve others is to serve him — meaning that in our service to others, we find our deepest satisfaction, we discover really, what it means to live, and to live fully.
We also go, to be enriched by people of a different culture. We go for a chance to take a “meaningful vacation.” For many of us, these kinds of vacations were pivotal in our formations — our minds broadened, our perspectives on need, want and happiness enlarged, and we discover, in a way that we can’t seem to be able to in our ordinary circumstances, the hard truth of Jesus’ story today — disasters and tragedy may strike at anytime and in anyplace. The stuff we have amassed do not do anything toward making these facts of life easier — in fact they may make it harder.
But our culture, shouts at us that Jesus is a liar, that in fact abundance of possession is the secret to happiness and contentment. If my psyche is anything like yours, we struggle with these competing claims. We say that our lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions, but we live sometimes as if they do. We take vacations that are only a different version of the same expensive rat race we want to escape.
Our mission trips go a long way toward helping us all live better lives by being reminded that people in many parts of this world that have been stricken by disaster, natural or otherwise, still find joy in sharing what little they have, and in some places I’ve been, that little bit is indeed a paltry little bit — and it is shared is if the sharing were truly their life blood — and it is.
When Jeremiah wrote that the days are surely coming when the Lord would fulfill the ancient promise, he was clear that it would not be a fulfillment of the Israel’s dream for security — an ancient equivalent of our modern day desire for stuff. Instead Israel’s security, our happiness, would be found in a turn-about from the ways that lead to discontentment and frustration, a turn-about from the anxiety about our security and the race to accomplish it, as though we could outrun the rain that will fall on the just and the unjust alike. Jeremiah knew nothing, of course, about Jesus. What he knew was that God would not simply ignore God’s people, even when we set our faces on Hamster Villa and all it stands for.
Further, Jeremiah argued, so strong was this urge of God’s to lead us to contentment and to honesty in living, to a turn about from the ways of dissatisfaction and frustration, that God would cause a shoot to spring up in our midst — that God would visit us with righteousness — that no amount of distance that we put, whether consciously or unconsciously, could separate us from the love of God.
We will find our contentment, again and again, as we turn from the lure of the fantasy of the successful to jump on the hamster wheel and run like hell, and find our satisfaction in a fuller view of happiness; happiness as participation in what the economists call our general welfare. Happiness as an expression of our general welfare will go more toward rebuilding our economy, some economists are finally arguing, than the self-engaged concern for personal economic advantage. An economy that takes happiness seriously now sees our success not in the self-directed metaphor of the hamster wheel, but in participating in other’s wellbeing, in giving our time and money to others, by enlarging our freedoms, as well as by the wise use of our money to provide for our selves and our families things that interest and support us in our journey to the good life. The advent angels leave us with a metaphor to live by: “Build peace on earth and goodwill toward all!” Amen.