When Winners Are Losers

These empty substitutes for authentic yearnings of our human hearts create inescapable cycles of striving and working harder and longer, using the same tools over and over -- tools that are actually designed not to work.
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We all crave some acknowledgement that our lives matter. We invariably hope that whatever we bring to our work, our family, and our world will be seen, recognized, and valued in some way.

For some, a life well-lived may include a sense of beauty, delight, a gentleness of days. Others dream of refuge in the stillness of the natural world, some a softly flowing melody, others the sharing of a simple meal with friends or loved ones. Still others crave peace in simple pleasures of being alive in our body, or contentment in the easy sufficiency of a single day well lived.

But as we feel increasingly drained, pushed, and pressured for time, we seldom taste such unhurried grace. Rarely do we feel truly seen, deeply known or loved for who we are. Repeatedly denied these fundamental nutrients, robbed of the serendipity of time that grants such blessings, we inadvertently set sail on a desperate search for some substitute to fill our corrosive sense of under-nourishment.

At this point, as we grasp for cheaper alternatives, we become more susceptible to certain seductive choices or possessions that promise they will provide not precisely what we dreamed -- but something that can, when we feel desperate enough, look pretty close. Most importantly, what we are offered is always something we can get easier, cheaper, and faster. In an increasingly busy life -- in the bone-weary ache of the exhausted heart -- these swiftly-available comforts become irresistible.

These faster, easier versions of love, satisfaction, sufficiency, or peace are in some faith traditions called sins. In the late 6th century, Roman Catholic Pope Gregory I consolidated a list, known as the seven deadly sins, that included pride, envy, gluttony, lust, greed, anger, and sloth.

These sins were condemned by the church as offenses against God. But what if -- so we may take a fresh, untarnished look at these particular human choices -- we take religion completely out of the picture. Without the church, without heaven or hell, penance or forgiveness, what can we learn about the inner spiritual physics that make these "sins" attractive in the first place?

We note right away these sins are essentially defective: They don't ever, ever work. More often than not, they just make things worse. Pride, for example, rarely makes us feel powerful. Greed never satisfies the need to accumulate, as it will never be enough. Gluttony cannot create a feeling of being pleasantly satiated, and envy never offers the thing we envy in others -- it can't make us famous, rich, important, or loved. Lust is a driving force that cannot possibly make us feel truly loved or cherished. Anger does not have the power to make us right, powerful, or more courageous. And sloth -- defined by Thomas Aquinas as a refusal of joy, a sadness in the face of spiritual good -- merely causes us to abandon all hope of rest, renewal, or delight.

In short, sin -- a word whose Greek root actually means "to miss the mark" -- is the wrong tool for the job.

This is classic bait and switch. We promise you love, but we just happen to be out of that right now. How about something like it -- say, a little lust instead? You will barely notice the difference. We are running low on inner fulfillment, but we can send you out the door right now with your own box of gluttony.

These empty substitutes for authentic yearnings of our human hearts create inescapable cycles of striving and working harder and longer, using the same tools over and over -- tools that are actually designed not to work. Worse, we are invariably left perpetually dissatisfied, relentlessly craving more, endlessly defeated by even our best, most heroic striving and effort.

And it gets worse. Because for the past several decades, our economy has slowly, gradually, but relentlessly transformed these seven deadly sins -- these defective, anguish-producing tools -- into shiny, brand-new seven American values.

Think for a moment. Aren't these the values we project, enjoy, and promise as the New American Dream? We're number one! (Pride) You can have it all! (Greed) Sex sells! (Lust) I just want to be famous! (Envy) All you can eat! (Gluttony) The world owes everything to me! (Sloth) If anyone stands in my way, well, bring 'em on! (Anger)

We quench our thirst for sufficiency and contentment by drinking from a fire hose. The new American promise is that through commerce and technology there is no limit to what we can accomplish or accumulate. But in every economy there exists some fundamental limit to what can possibly have authentic value, never mind what we can ever absorb, digest, or enjoy.

Increasingly desperate in our craving, we grasp the same ineffective, disappointing tools over and over, never feeling we have done, received, or accomplished enough of anything. From there, we easily conclude we must not be good enough, have not worked hard enough, will never have, or be, enough.

Let me be clear: I have no interest in a moral, religious argument about what is, and is not, sinful. That debate belongs elsewhere. Here, I plead only that we listen -- deeply, quietly, without hurry or distraction -- to the subtle, inviolable laws of physics, sheer cause and effect, that undergird the way we live our lives. When we dream of a full, rich life, feeling loved, appreciated, and valued, can we honestly say this is an accurate picture of the fruits of our labor, this striving, grasping economy of the New American Dream?

For many Americans -- especially for the growing numbers of people, families, single parents who work more hours, more jobs, and still end up without job security or health care -- the question, "What is enough?" is no mere concept, no economic algorithm; it is a daily, unforgiving, uphill battle that feels it will never end.

If all we offer in our over-promising, election-driven economy is a handful of defective, corrosive tools that only make us weaker, poorer, and bone-weary, how can we honorably promise that anything we ever produce, invent, buy, or sell will ever be enough?

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