By FR. ROLANDO DELA ROSA, OP
We spend most of our life desiring something. The moment we possess what we desire, we experience pleasure. St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “No human being can live without pleasure.” But he adds a caveat: “But a person who starves himself of higher pleasures goes scavenging for the lower ones.”
Lower pleasures give us temporary satisfaction but leave us empty and craving for more. They constrict our desire by focusing it exclusively on the fleeting satisfaction that we experience. Higher pleasures, on the other hand, expand our desire by provoking a certain psychic discontent that makes us ask: “Is this all there is to it?”
St. Augustine, after indulging in all the worldly pleasures available to himrealized that nothing in this world could fully satisfy his longing. There was always a persistent desire for fulfillment, completeness, and wholeness that money, sex, and power could not quench. Following the stoics, he turned his back on his former way of life, rejecting everything that he used to desire. To no avail.
Desire, as an essential part of being human, is at the root of our sexual passion, work, play, friendship, prayer, art, and all other activities that bring about pleasure. St. Augustine finally realized that the best way to confront our desire is not to disown, ignore, sublimate, and even anesthetize it, but to see the discontent that it provokes as a yearning for something ultimate and transcendent. He writes: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Indeed, every desire is, in some sense, a yearning for God.
Unfortunately, in our age that extols unfettered freedom and license to do anything, desire has mutated into greed. In the movie “Wall Street,” the lead character, Gordon Gecko, says: “Greed is good! Greed is right! Greed works! Greed clarifies. Greed for life, for money, for love, and knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Gecko’s irrational exuberance resembles that of the man in today’s gospel. Jesus narrates it thus: “A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, ‘What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything. Ah, I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Once I have stored up enough good things to last for years to come, I will live, eat, drink, and enjoy myself!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! Tonight you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?’” (Luke 12:16-20).
Greed impels us to multiply our possessions until they become grotesquely disproportionate with our needs. Jesus’ injunction is very apt and to the point here: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Perhaps the certainty of death is precisely what makes us greedy. What we lack in time, we make up for it by stockpiling bank accounts, property, business firms, and consumer goods. We have regarded wealth as a guarantee for immortality. We protest against the inevitability of death through the rattling of cash registers and the cacophony of haggling, buying, and selling. When we lose sight of what we truly desire, we clutch more fiercely at cheap substitutes.
Joe Heller, the author of the novel Catch-22, was once informed that what he earned in 40 years was nothing compared with what present billionaires earned in one day. He simply replied: “I have something they do not and cannot have—the knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Knowing that we have enough is the best antidote to greed.