The lure of luxury

Do not revel in great luxury,

or you may become impoverished by its expense.

Do not become a beggar by feasting with borrowed money,

when you have nothing in your purse.

Ecclesiasticus 18:32-33

By George Clifford

The Christmas shopping season started weeks ago even though Christmas is still almost two months away. Shopping is a passion for many Americans, as slogans like Shop til you drop, Born to shop, and Retail therapy remind us. No holiday, no matter how minor, is now complete without multiple retail sales. Retail purchases comprise almost half of all consumer spending. Credit card debt, home equity lines of credit, and other forms of borrowing finance much of that spending.

With the approach of Advent, Christian rants about self-indulgent spending are as tiresome as predictable. At the risk of falling into that tedious trap, a couple of recent experiences have prompted some reflections.

First, a daily feature in my local newspaper and a seemingly weekly fixture in my mailbox are advertisements for products and services to help me organize my clutter. TV shows intended to help people to sell their house invariably emphasize decluttering. When strolling around my neighborhood in the evening, most garages with open doors reveal piles of stuff, often so much stuff there is no longer room to park vehicles in the garage. Long after the Depression era, many cling tenaciously to every item they own.

How much stuff does one really need? I want, unlike what Jesus had, a place to lay my head at night. I also like clean clothes, comfortable furniture, books, music, and a laptop. But I do not need family business records from the previous century, old photographs in which the people are unidentifiable, a collapsible boat that sinks rather than floats, miscellaneous kitchen and household items that might help in the emergency that never comes, etc. That is not a random list of items. My family of origin inherited all of that and much, much more, enough to fill a large fourteen room colonial with large attached barn. We had so much stuff that one could not enter some of the rooms or use some of the stairways. As a young boy, I watched my parents sort through the legacy and detritus left by the four prior generations who had lived in that house and I decided that I did not want to live that way. My ancestors had so much stuff that it got in the way of living.

I want my stuff to enrich rather than to impoverish my life. Pragmatism is good for the wallet and the soul. Moving every couple of years during my Naval service, I cultivated the habit of getting rid of anything that is no longer serviceable, no longer used, and unlikely to be used in the next year. This not only simplified moving, unpacking, and getting settled but also made for a more spacious, freer lifestyle. An incredible number of military families have boxes they move from one home to the next, boxes that remain unopened and take valuable space in an often too small house. People usually have no idea what these boxes might contain. I have wondered what ties bind people so strongly to these unopened boxes; surely, it is more than simple greed. Whatever the ties, many civilian families also have similar issues given the quantities of stuff and clutter that seem so much a part of contemporary life.

Second, Fortune magazine identified their September 17, 2007 issue as their luxury issue. Some of the articles focused on businesses, like Guicci and Polo, that cater to the luxury market. Thankfully, I have sufficiently strong ego that I do not take my identity from brand names. I was feeling pretty smug until I read what Columnist Stanley Bing wrote:

Now, this topic, while of intense interest to virtually everyone in any economic stratum whatsoever, leaves those of us without even a plan to acquire a yacht or a polo pony in a discursive state of mind. On the one hand, it is great fun to fantasize about owning your own island, driving an automobile whose hood ornament costs more than your brother-in-law’s house, or flying in a plane with your name on its tailbone. On the other hand, the fact that each of these things seem out of reach may leave many feeling covetous, angry, or just plain sad.

Do I find luxury a subject of intense interest? Do I want luxury? Unsure about the meaning of the word luxury (like others, including my former Commander-in-Chief, I sought some maneuvering room!), I consulted the Concise Oxford Dictionary (maneuvering room, not an ocean of choices). The Dictionary provided two definitions:

1. the state of great comfort and extravagant living.

2. an inessential but desirable item.

The first felt vaguely unchristian when I am daily reminded of people desperately in need of life’s basic necessities. I, with complete honesty, can disavow any desire to own my own island or polo pony. However, I do want nonessentials. Indeed, I think that God wants us to enjoy nonessentials because they enrich life, e.g., a good wine, aesthetically pleasing homes, and art. Poverty, thanks be to God, is not the life to which I was born nor is voluntary poverty a lifestyle to which I feel called.

Yet, an issue with which I continually struggle is how to balance my desire for a good life with my neighbors’ rights for the same. To the extent that I can only spend my money once, this is a zero sum game. I either spend my money on myself or on others (whether directly or as a bequest at my death). The Christian wisdom literature captured this moral dilemma with a good measure of irony (Ecclesiasticus 14:15-16):

Will you not leave the fruit of your labors to another,

and what you acquired by toil to be divided by lot?

Give, and take, and indulge yourself,

because in Hades one cannot look for luxury.

Maybe one day, in the remembrance of a birth both simple and beautiful, I will find my answers.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains. He taught philosophy at the Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School.