Quite a few years ago, before the shattering of the Iron Curtain and the disunifying of the Soviet Union, a friend in Atlanta hosted two Russian visitors. As hosts often do when people come to visit from out of town, my friend wanted to introduce his guests to some of the local sites. One of the destinations was a huge, indoor shopping mall.
“Who doesn’t like a trip to the mall?” he thought. Well, he found out. The Russians, accustomed to long food lines and sparse store shelves in their home country during Communist rule, went out of curiosity but quickly experienced sensory overload.
After about five minutes, the visitors rushed up to their hosts and insisted, “We must go now.” “But we’ve just gotten here,” my friend protested.
“No,” one of the men repeated, “We must go. Too much – too much!” Trying to comprehend the material abundance everywhere they looked had overwhelmed them.
I was reminded of this while viewing a video produced by PragerU, a conservative non-profit devoted to teaching about the values that make America great. In the video, an immigrant from Cuba goes to Walmart for the first time. In the grocery section, he’s amazed at both the array and size of the fresh produce. He picks up an onion about the size of a baseball in disbelief.
The newcomer to the U.S.A. next goes to the small appliance section, and then the toy department where he marvels at the many dolls on display. How would his daughter react if she saw this, he wonders. As the Cuban speaks on the video, you can see astonishment in his eyes. There was nothing like this in his homeland.
By comparison, how do lifelong Americans react in similar circumstances? We’re more likely to respond with a shrug, oblivious to the abundance all around us. I’ve actually felt a bit annoyed at times by having some many choices: Going into a paint store and discovering hundreds of different shades of…white, or blue, or green. Or walking down a grocery store aisle and encountering 55 varieties of baked beans – in sizes ranging from single-serving to “big enough to feed an army.” Why so many?
Remember the great toilet paper panic of 2020? (Who can forget, right?) In two blinks of an eye, the shelves went from stacks and stacks of TP to absolutely bare, causing some to consider subscribing again to the daily newspaper – just in case they ran out and needed an alternative. The crisis got so urgent that Mr. Whipple nearly came out of retirement to hawk his hoarded supplies of Charmin.
Such is the blessing – and the curse – of living in a prosperous nation. We can easily grow complacent, taking for granted our access to goods that people in many other countries can find only in their dreams.
Maybe that’s why one of the virtues so rare in our society is contentment. Our desire for more seems limitless. Too much is never enough. Meanwhile, folks from other nations who visit – or just watch American programs on TV – find such abundance unfathomable.
I’m not suggesting we should go on a collective guilt trip, but maybe it’s time we started to gain some perspective. In a letter of exhortation to his young protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul wrote, “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
In this same passage we read, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Some have incorrectly quoted this as “the love of money is the root of all evil,” which it doesn’t say at all. But as Paul concludes his thought, “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
Perhaps the greatest problem with material abundance – excess – is that it deceives us into trusting our own self-sufficiency. Which in turn diminishes our sense of dependence upon God. Jesus spoke about this, chiding His hearers for worrying about their daily needs:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?... For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25-33).
In one sense, it’s wonderful to know we live in a society where we typically don’t have to worry about whether we’ll find a loaf of bread to buy when we go to the store. But it might be good to occasionally see things as folks visiting from other less “blessed” lands. Wouldn’t it be something to go to a mall and suddenly decide, “Too much!” and return home, happily content with what we have and not feeling an urge to acquire more?
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Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly published, ”Marketplace Ambassadors”; “Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace”; “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” A weekly business meditation he edits, “Monday Manna,” is translated into more than 20 languages and sent via email around the world by CBMC International. The address for his blog is www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.