Dear Father Todd, Popular culture says you’re successful when you have a huge house, a couple of late model cars in the driveway, wear designer clothes, and take luxury vacations to exotic places. If this materialistic vision is the definition of success, why are so many “successful” people so unhappy?
It is so easy for us to get caught up in the material world as if that is all there is. We can find ourselves basing our happiness on the things we possess as opposed to who we are in God; i.e., his adopted sons or daughters. To seek security in material success (money, affluence, popularity, empowerment, etc) is to place our hope in something so fragile, yet the temptation is great because it all seems so tangible and measurable. Materialism draws us into its grip and holds on to us tightly.
What does this do to us internally? When all is well and according to our liking, we feel happy; however, what happens to this happiness when things take a turn for the worse or even spiral out of control? We become anxious, upset, miserable, and feel like a failure. The things of this world are fleeting and so are their momentary joys. We can’t build our lives on shifting sand (Matthew 7:26-27).
St Augustine wrote in his famous autobiography Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, Lord!” How true this is! We seek to satisfy our appetites and passions because they are so easily appeased, and we push aside the harder task of feeding our spirits with the life-giving and life-changing grace of God.
Our hearts were created with a God-sized hole, and only he can fill it. Most of us spend so much time and energy trying to force other created things into this hole, even though none of them quite fit. We might think they do for a time, but eventually we realize that they don’t. The heart of man was created for love; as we read in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” Only God can truly give us happiness in the deepest, most meaningful sense of the word. No amount of earthly success can equal this, because real love and happiness are not earned. These are given to us as a gift from God himself, not just to be received by us but in order that we can give love and happiness to others as well. Happiness is not found in the amount of things we have or being able to do as we please. Instead, happiness is found in the presence of God in our souls and the detachment from everything else.
Those who believe in the lie that money and success buy love, happiness, and purpose will eventually discover that created things can never fully satisfy us. Why? Because we are not only corporal (possessing a material body), we are also spiritual (possessing a soul). If we only satisfy our corporal side, we’ll never be truly happy. We are incomplete when we only give emphasis to one aspect of our personhood. We need God above all to truly fulfill the deepest longings of our human existence; herein lies true happiness. Christ told us in Luke 16: 13 that we can not serve both God and mammon (money or possessions). We are not meant to have two masters. Christ wants to lead us to the true harmony of life, where his Spirit reigns in our lives and helps us to put all spiritual and material realities into perspective. This is true success.
Yours in Christ, Father Todd Arsenault, LC
PS from Dan: A great and hard hitting book on the topic of poverty and materialism is Happy Are You Poor by Father Thomas Dubay. I highly recommend it.
Art for this post on why so many “successful” people so unhappy: Marriage of St. Francis with Lady Poverty, Stefano di Giovanni, between 1437 and 1444, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.