Consumerism: A Subtle Corroder of Virtue

Psychologist Tells How Christians Can Resist Materialism

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UNIONTOWN, Ohio, AUG. 28, 2004 ( Jesus Christ spoke out against greed more than any other vice. But despite those warnings, Christians are still incredibly susceptible to the allure of a materialistic lifestyle, says a Catholic psychologist.

Dr. Ray Guarendi, author, radio host and father of 10, told ZENIT how Christians in the West are plagued by consumerism and what damage greed can do to Christian marriages, families and individuals.

Q: Those in a free society are awash in choice in virtually all aspects of life: housing, employment, appearance, relationships, possessions. What would you say are the major areas where consumerism has deeply affected Christians’ behavior — without them realizing it?

Guarendi: Consumerism seems to me to be the Number 1 corporate sin of Christians — it’s the sin that affects the most of us the most. We are simply so deep into it we don’t see it anymore.

Our desire for stuff supersedes everything. We are distracted, owned, tempted and seduced by it. We simply think less of God and more of «it» — it consumes more of our waking moments than God. That may be why our Lord spoke more of greed in the New Testament than anything else.

Part of the problem is that the American culture views consumerism and stuff as part and parcel of normal living. It just is; it’s how people get by. How can that be wrong? But it goes to the core of who we are. Consumerism equates with self — self-centeredness, self-fulfillment, self-satisfaction, selfish desires.

Virtually everyone lives to the limit or above what they can afford. That leaves no margin to give of money, to give of time and to simply have extra. Often, when missionaries come into parishes and take a second collection, the number of $1 bills is pathetic. Catholics are the richest religious group in the country and we give the least.

Unfortunately, we don’t see it because we’re like fish that don’t sense the water around us. We need to make an effort to sense consumerism and try to resist it in our society.

When kids go anywhere — the store, restaurants, parties, other homes, even churches — they get prizes. We get stuff as often as we breathe; it becomes part of our lifestyle. We have to consciously and willfully fight to recognize that this is happening.

If we gave to the Church the amount of money we spend eating out and shopping — or how much we pay on interest for things we don’t really need — the Church would be able to help so many more people.

In our culture, being a consumer is seen as the good life — but it distracts us from the infinitely good life. Adam and Eve had everything, except for one tree. And of course, that’s what they wanted the most.

Q: With the growth of consumerism, how have you seen this phenomenon play out in Christian marriages, families and children?

Guarendi: As a therapist, one of the first things I do with a child who has a behavior problem is ask the parents to reassess the child’s goodies, activities and privileges. Kids are awash in things and leisure opportunities, and it affects their behavior.

One of the top three stresses in marriages and families is finances. We are the wealthiest culture the world has ever seen, but our discontent over our finances, homes and ability to buy things is sky-high.

Because of the degree we want stuff, we have to work. That means that Daddy and sometimes Mommy are away from home all day so that they and their kids can have everything they want. This leads to what I call the «working parent compensation system.»

Moms often don’t want to work, but think they have to work because of spending habits in the family. They are tired when they come home, they feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children and they are hesitant to spend that little time punishing their kids for misbehaving.

That affects their resolve to discipline and be, in effect, parents. If parents are working long or extra hours, they can’t supervise their children; their kids are on their own to raise themselves.

Husbands often pursue their toys more than wives because they are told they gotta have them to be a man’s man and enjoy life. At a superficial level, guys want the newest, best stuff, and sometimes that includes wives. They think, «My wife is getting older; there must be a better, newer model out there.»

When you learn to want things, your wants don’t just stop at inanimate objects. You want other people and relationships that seem better than your current ones. When you are dissatisfied with what you have, it doesn’t stop with consumer goods. This often leads to affairs and an overall pattern of discontent.

Discontent is not related to what we have, it’s the distance between what we have and what we want.

Q: Increased affluence over the last decades has contributed to freedom of choice by giving people the means to act on their various goals and desires. How has this affected a Christian’s ability to commit to a lifelong vocation, especially to the religious life and the priesthood?

Guarendi: The gap between what religious accept as their lifestyle and the available lifestyle in the West is large and has grown wider in the last few generations. African vocations are exploding in part, it seems, because religious life in Africa is an educated and appealing life compared to others’ lives in that culture.

In the West, compared to the rest of society, religious life has very little perceived «payoff.» The gap is huge, so the commitment is bigger. Commitment to priestly or religious vocations has to be fostered daily, because daily one is reminded of what he or she is giving up.

Kids these days have a lot of stuff. For them to respond to a call to religious life, it has to be pretty strong. They have to turn their back to a lot of the «good life» to commit solely to Christ.

We live in the culture where the attention span is short. We define the goodness of life by its variability, its progressiveness and change. Committing to something for life, such as marriage, can be looked at as psychologically suffocating. We can’t commit to just one thing. Tradition, commitment and stability are looked down on.

We have succeeded in psychologically deigning as good those very things that can bring down our culture.

Q: How can Christians gauge how much consumerism influences their lives? What are questions that people, and especially parents, can ask themselves in order to determine its pervasiveness?

Guarendi: Here are some things you can ask yourself.

If I am asked to give to the work for the Church, can I do it? Or do I say that I would love to, but I can’t financially? That is an indication that we are living at or beyond our financial limits.

How many things do I need? People often think they can’t give to the Church because they have too much stuff to buy, too many payments; they don’t have extra to give.

How much margin is there in my life? Do I have free time? Do I have free money? Free energy? I’m too busy to do anything for anyone? Look at busy-ness and look how much is necessary.

You have to look at what demands your time and if you can justify it. Even if you can afford things, you don’t have to have them. Look how much you use things, especially your toys and big things. Ask yourself: Am I neglecting others in order to take care of all my stuff? What kind of time do I spend with my kids and family?

If you own a big home, even if you can pay for it, maintaining it eats up a lot of your time. God won’t ask how big your house was. He will ask you how much time you spent with your family.

How much stuff do my kids have? Kids need about five toys, if that. They can draw, read and make up things. I use as a rule of thumb: Get rid of 90% of what kids have. It improves your frustration level with them, and it i
mproves their gratitude and behavior. Give it away. I am not saying live like St. Francis; just get down to a healthy level.

Does my stuff interfere with my ability to help and have relationships with people? The more you own, the more you are owned by it.

Q: How can Christians respond to and combat consumerism?

Guarendi: Very simple way to deal with it: Give it away or don’t buy it. Go through your house; count all of the things that are just sitting there. They serve no purpose but to adorn our lives.

Look at how you spend your money. If someone is hurting and needs your help, are you contributing only $5 to help them? Why are you not giving them more?

Most Christians see tithing as the standard of generosity. Tithing in the Old Testament is a small percentage. In the New Testament, the standard is to give your second coat to another — that’s giving 50% of what you have.

Consumerism does not help in the life of virtue. It is a subtle corroder of Christian virtue. It is devastating to a Christian’s walk with the Lord because it flows in tandem with preoccupation with self.

Consumerism is a continuation of self-absorption — life is to get, not to give. Materialism is completely antithetical to Christian living and the giving of ourselves, our belongings and our lives.

We need to look at ourselves, our homes and how we live with an objective eye. Look at what is helping you get to heaven, and what is keeping you from walking with God.

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