Most “pop psychology” and self-help books teach that you can be, do, or have anything you want. They deliver this message for a good reason. It’s true! However, while we can be or have anything we want, the same is not true for EVERYTHING we want. There are two reasons for this. First, our resources are limited. After all, we have only so much time, life, money, and energy to work with. Second, our appetite is insatiable. That is, no matter what we become, gain, or achieve, we want more. Our appetite is like seawater; the more we drink, the thirstier we become. Since we cannot have everything we want, frustration and unhappiness are unavoidable, unless we learn how to curb our greed.
One of the major causes of suffering in the world is greed, also known as avarice, covetousness, or cupidity. Desire in itself is not wrong. Is there anything wrong with my desire to write this article or our desire to make this world a better place? Hardly. It is excessive and insatiable desire that we need to avoid. Take money, for example. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. On the contrary, we can do much good with it. Contrary to what some would have us believe, it is not the root of all evil, although insatiable greed is. That’s why the Bible says, “For the LOVE (desire or greed) of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (Timothy I 6:10)
Why are we so greedy? Well, possessions can bring us pleasure. And pleasure can become addictive. If we mistakenly associate pleasure with happiness, it’s not surprising that we pursue it without end. Another reason for greed is fear. We’re afraid there is only so much material to go around, and if we’re not quick enough, someone else may snatch what we want. Although fear can cause greed, ironically, greed causes more fear. For as Chuang Tzu wrote,” He who considers wealth a good thing can never bear to give up his income; he who considers eminence a good thing can never bear to give up his fame. He who has a taste for power can never bear to hand over authority to others. Holding tight to these things, such men shiver with fear; should they let them go, they would pine in sorrow.” Isn’t it true that if our desires are endless, our cares and fears will be too?
How do they catch monkeys on the islands of the Indian Ocean? After drilling a small hole into a coconut, they empty it out and stuff some of the monkeys’ favorite food inside. Later, attracted by the smell of food, a monkey squeezes its hand through the hole, grabs the food, and then discovers it cannot pull its enlarged fist out of the hole. Why doesn’t it just drop the food and try again? The greedy monkey doesn’t want to let go of the food! While the bewildered monkey is trying to figure out how to remove the coconut from its hand, it is quickly captured with a net. Like the monkey, we can become prisoners of our own greed, slaves of our own addictions. We’ve got to learn to let go.
Lotteries and other forms of gambling lead some people to believing that they can have EVERYTHING they want by striking it rich. As they “invest” more and more of their earnings into get-rich-quick schemes, they find that instead of striking it rich, they strike out. Dissatisfied with what they had, they now have nothing. Another promoter of false dreams is the credit card. You can have what you want NOW, it tells us. Those who get suckered into trying to fulfill their insatiable appetite with credit cards soon discover the only thing they have NOW is many bills, much pain. Why can’t we tell the difference between our needs and our greeds?
As you can see, unfettered greed can destroy lives. It can lead to envy, overindulgence of food and drink, and other forms of unhappiness, all of which are symptoms of lack of self-control. Some work so hard amassing wealth that they neglect their family. Does it make sense to build a fortune while tearing down a loving relationship? What is the difference between the hunger of a greedy man who has much and the hunger of one who has little? A greedy person cannot be rich. The poor are not those who don’t have much, but are those who crave much.
On a global scale, greed can prove to be disastrous. After all, “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.” (James 4:1-2)
Because we cannot have EVERYTHING we want, we need to focus on what’s important in our lives and prioritize. We also need to teach our children at an early age how to cope with endless desire. If you’re a parent with young kids, ask your bookstore for Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s new children’s book, “But I Waaannt It!” (HarperCollins). We can put out the flames of greed by concentrating on BEING more instead of HAVING more. We can be more compassionate, helpful, nurturing, responsible, self-disciplined, and courageous. Instead of pampering ourselves with pleasure, we can make ourselves stronger, better, and happier.