Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Ownership and the Simple Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 03, 2008

Christians are always called to put God first, and very often this means we need to have fewer possessions to simplify our lives, so that we are not distracted from our top priority. Yet while we live in the flesh, we do need to provide for the material needs and legitimate desires of both ourselves and our families. While some may manage this without personal ownership (either by relying on Providence or by becoming inveterate sponges), for most of us ownership lies at the center of how we prudently behave as composite beings, possessing not only souls but bodies.

For this reason, significant ownership decisions typically involve a little angst. Do I really need this? If it isn’t strictly necessary, does it fill a reasonable emotional, psychological or spiritual need? Is a given expenditure consistent with my state in life? Does it conflict with more important priorities? Will it prevent me from fulfilling charitable obligations? Will it cause me to lose spiritual focus? Is it contrary to God’s will? How much is too much? Recently I’ve been thinking hard about several significant transactions, so I’ve been going through every one of these considerations. And I have found, once again, that the answers do not always come easily.

I should avoid specifics. It is one of the perils of sometimes begging for financial support that those solicited may be unreasonably critical of the fund-raiser’s list of possessions. Whenever I mention something I’ve purchased in a message or a blog entry, someone invariably sends me an angry note: “What! You bought a toothbrush? I can’t even afford teeth!” This is, admittedly, an exaggeration, but I’ve found it doesn’t matter much what one purchases: Somebody will feel abused. All of this reminds me of a delightful television commercial (for McDonald’s, I think) in which two old guys are comparing the hardships of childhood. Part of the dialogue runs something like this: Old guy 1: “I used to have to walk through the snow for miles in my bare feet to get to school.” Old guy 2: “Feet? You had feet?”

So let me just recount what happened last night when I was driving home from my youngest son’s high school graduation ceremony in an automobile which was just nine days old. During the car’s first week, several warning lights would light up about half the time after the car was started, though restarting always solved the problem. But while I was driving last night, the warning indicators for four wheel drive, vehicle stability control, and the engine itself all came on and stayed on. I hoped to make it home, but a mile later, the battery warning illuminated, and soon the headlights were noticeably dimmer. Then the power-steering disappeared, leaving me wrestling with the wheel. A few seconds later, the brake warning light came on, and I wondered whether I was going to lose hydraulic braking too. Finally, the car stopped responding to the accelerator, though the engine was still running. At that point, about three miles from home, I decided to coast to the side of the road and call for a tow.

I had the car towed to the dealer. But when I called this morning to get repairs started, the service department had no knowledge of the car! They said they hadn’t received a key for it in the night-drop box, and had no “paperwork” on it. (Not having accompanied the tow-truck, I didn’t know what procedure had been followed.) The service department said they’d “look for the car”, which apparently consisted of one member of the service team asking all the other members whether they knew anything about it. Nobody ever looked outside where the cars are parked. So I finally drove the twelve miles to the dealer only to find (as I certainly hoped) that the new car was right where I expected it to be. I told the service rep where the car was, gave him a new key, and returned home. (Later, the service department called to explain that the original key had been deposited without paperwork, and that the person who had picked it up in the morning, not knowing what the key was for, had given it to the new car sales department.)

You may laugh, but I bet you won’t, because you’ve been there too. It is the nature of ownership to be highly distracting. Ownership brings responsibility, and that responsibility may well interfere with other, more important things. In general, we find it impossible to simplify our lives by owning more. In fact, ownership nearly always has the opposite effect. To one degree or another—and in extreme cases to a completely unacceptable degree spiritually—we are possessed by our possessions. This is no small problem.

Nor do I have a solution. Major ownership decisions, for Christians, ought to involve consultation and prayer, but there are no guarantees that the best decision will be made—and even the best decisions will rarely be trouble-free. Nor is there any ready-made, clear-cut model to follow. No two persons or families will have exactly the same combination of needs, desires, interests, resources, capabilities and callings. The benefits of ownership will be weighed very differently by different people. But there is one thing that is fairly constant: Ownership will add complexity. I’m more aware of that today than I was a few days ago and—for the moment, at least—I’m not particularly happy about it. Decidedly, this is one more thing to think and pray about before deciding to buy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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