All the Land He could Walk
Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown. Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace.
By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost. As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line.
Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes he was dead. Afterwards, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide. The title of Tolstoy’s story was: How Much Land Does a Man Need?
Bits and Pieces, November, 1991.
Coveting Yesterday and Today
Remember how you felt that Christmas when your sister opened the gift you wanted? Or when your brother got a T-bird for graduation and you got stuck with the family Nova? Fast-forward to today and ask yourself how it hits you when a co-worker gets a raise but you have done more work—or perhaps, his work?
Or when a neighbor decorates her home from an unrestricted budget and you’re gluing the peeling wallpaper back on the wall? We find ourselves kids again, pouting around the Christmas tree amid our piles of toys. There’s a reason Scripture has to command us not to covet. It’s in our (fallen) nature. It’s systemic. It’s the kneejerk reaction of jerks. If we can’t have more than others, at least we want it equal. But less than others? Uh, no.
Living In Excess Comes in Different Sizes
For many of us, living in excess doesn’t express itself in extremities. It doesn’t translate to tying $4,000 to balloons and releasing it into the air. It doesn’t have to amount to owning six houses (two of which we never use) and four Rolls-Royces. Excess comes in petite sizes, too.
Maybe we need a comfortable pair of sneakers because we’re on our feet all day at work. Instead of just getting a pair from a trusted brand, we walk out of the mall with three pairs of Air Jordans. Lavishness is unique to each of us in our own position and means of living. Lavishness is not a type of owning—that is, it’s not a true representation of owning—but a malformed way to own.
A few years ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000.
In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them. What did the majority of people choose? Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms. People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.
When We Live By Bread Alone
When we live by bread alone, there is never enough bread, not enough even when we make so much of it that some of it rots away; when we live by bread alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste, and the more we eat the more bitter the taste; when we live by bread alone, we always want more and better bread, as if the bitterness came from the bread itself and not from our living by bread alone.
I could continue with the analogy, but you get my point: living by ‘mundane realities’ and for them alone, we remain restless, and that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, social injustice, and the destruction of the environment as well as constitutes a major obstacle to more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social arrangements.