By Mike Slagle – Editor, LifeStream™
Ernest Hemingway’s closing words in A Moveable Feast have always resonated with me: “But this is how Paris was in the early days, when we were very poor and very happy.”
Hauntingly sad words from a writer who had already become a legend – as a writer and as a public figure – by the time he wrote them nearly four decades later in 1960 (a year before his death) and who was enjoying all of the material trappings that went along with his fame.
I think I’ve figured out why those closing words have stuck with me – and why they relate to this issue’s focus on the ephemeral value of the things we own. A Moveable Feast reflects, in part, Hemingway’s realization that happiness and satisfaction with one’s life is not measured in material possessions acquired or in celebrity status.
The “things” we acquire often distract us from our journey with temporary gratification, squeeze our sense of purpose with artificial expectations and, in the end, disappoint us with their nebulous value. They clutter our lives – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
To paraphrase sociologist Elise Boulding, because our consumption society has conditioned us to feel that happiness lies in acquiring possessions, it has “failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.” Our ambitions make us hungry for status, mistakenly measured not in the inner satisfaction of the accomplishment itself, but in our public displays – luxury automobiles, bigger houses, the elite company we keep, and the power we wield – that the accomplishment makes possible. We lose sight of our real needs and, in the process, let our wants run amuck.
Possessions, in and of themselves, are not necessarily a bad thing, and we’re not advocating austerity here. But when we mistake our consumption urge as a means toward enduring happiness, we’re more often than not going to be disappointed. At some point the things we own begin to own us.
Once the instant gratification wears off, the value of the objects we’ve acquired diminishes – often while we’re still paying off the credit cards and loans we took out to purchase them. In turn, we seek more gratification and succumb once again to our urge to own something bigger or better, perpetuating a vicious cycle of consumerism.
Beyond our perceived need to exhibit our status publicly, there are many theories of why we become entrenched in this cycle. If we grew up poor, for example, surrounding ourselves with material goods may assure us that we’ll always have enough. Or if we suffer from low self-esteem, we may feel the need to shore-up our morale with beautiful surroundings. Whatever the reason, we are fooling ourselves if we expect happiness to be packaged on a retailer’s shelf, to come with leather upholstery and a convertible top, or to be embedded within the walls of a new house.
Once we’re caught in this cycle, our desire for a newer model, for a bigger and better this or that, clouds our perspective on what matters most to us. We condition ourselves to no longer be content with what we have and, thus, the object of our life’s work becomes a quest for material goods or name recognition. We lose sight of spiritual fulfillment or accomplishing the task or the skill we set out to master. Always wanting more, we are unable to celebrate the way things are in the moment. Happiness cannot bloom amid the weeds of discontent.
Truth is, our possessions eventually become little more than clutter in our lives rather than a panacea to assure our happiness. At some level we all know that. The key is to separate our true needs from our wants, to rid our lives from the complexity the clutter creates. “When you realize there is nothing lacking,” Lao Tzu said, “the whole world belongs to you.”
In Paris, the world belonged to Hemingway. He lived simply and happily, requiring only a good morning’s effort at crafting a new story, the intimacy of his wife and young son, and a close circle of friends. That was before his fame and fortune made his life complex and robbed him of fulfillment and happiness.