The whole culture conspires against us in the holiday season,” says April Lane Benson, a Manhattan psychologist who has treated compulsive shoppers for 15 years. Besides tempting sales, pressure to top last year’s gifts and the urge to shop for oneself, she says, “the holidays bring up a lot of unfulfilled longing for some people—and that’s one reason why they shop, as a salve for disappointment.” (Excerpted from: Shop ‘Till You Drop: How to Treat Compulsive Spending – Wall Street Journal, Dec 6 2011)
Most people will admit that an unhealthy relationship with the “things” in our lives can be costly and damaging, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re able to identify when we’ve crossed the line. So when does harmless holiday shopping become full-on retail therapy, and how can we avoid it?
In last week’s Torah reading, as Jacob reunites for the first time in twenty years with his brother Eisav, we get a helpful definition by way of a distinction that may at first seem hard to understand. Jacob, who originally fled from Eisav’s murderous wrath after stealing his blessings, now wants to appease him with gifts, and the plan appears to work. Eisav seems to be genuinely moved, refusing the offering with the words: “I have plenty. My brother, let what you have remain yours.” (Genesis 33:9) Jacob nevertheless presses him to take the gift, saying: “Please accept my gift which was brought to you, inasmuch as God has been gracious to me and inasmuch as I have everything.” (Genesis 33:11)
The pre-eminent Torah commentator Rashi seizes on this slight difference in language with the following comment: “[Jacob says:]’I have everything:’ All of my needs, but Eisav speaks in a language of arrogance, I have much much more than I need.” We can understand how Rashi’s reading would indicate arrogance. Eisav seems to be bragging that he’s filthy rich while Jacob simply claims that he has what he needs. But Eisav’s words could also be understood as an expression of extreme gratitude for the abundance that he has. Why does Rashi interpret Eisav’s words negatively and more importantly, what is he trying to teach us?
There’s actually a big difference between thinking I have a lot, and knowing that I have everything I need. Even when I conclude that I have more than I require, I have nevertheless entered into the realm of evaluating what I have, and that is a tricky business. Need isn’t easy to determine. I many feel like I have more than enough today, but tomorrow I can just as easily conclude that I have way too little. The problem is that I don’t really have a baseline from which to evaluate the issue, which means no matter how hard I try, there’s no way for me to know for certain when enough is really enough.
The lack of a clear definition makes it easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that I can’t be happy unless I have ______, and by the way, ______ doesn’t necessarily mean money or things. It can be talent, intelligence, luck or anything else I deem necessary for my well-being. You fill in the blank. In the end, the result is the same: Acquisition becomes my focus and my sense of happiness becomes hostage to outcomes that are usually beyond my control. I can easily become obsessed with how to get what I want, and may even rationalize compromising my standards and principles in order to do so. But what’s saddest of all is that even if I succeed, the pleasure that I experience is fleeting at best. The happiness that I seek is not to be found in things; and so I move on in search of bigger and better stuff. In the end, my life is all about me and what I possess. This is the arrogance that Rashi alludes to.
The only way to avoid the trap of evaluating what I have is to take the question off the table all together. The realization that I have already been blessed with everything I need engenders not only feelings of gratitude and humility, but a sense of responsibility to fully utilize what I have been given. As a result, my main question in life immediately shifts from “what do I need in the future?” to “How am I using what I have now?” And since this latter issue is entirely in my control, I am filled with a sense of empowerment, rather than frustration. I have moved from being a victim of circumstance to being a pro-active player in my life, perfectly positioned to experience the real and lasting pleasure that comes as a result of true achievement.
I realize that it may not be easy for some of us to accept that we already have everything that we need, especially when we live in a world that constantly tells us that we must have more. Not everyone buys into the notion of a world that is run by a creator who provides for all of our requirements. Nevertheless, I would argue even from a purely pragmatic view that it never pays to get into the game of evaluating what you have because regardless of your conclusion, your cards have already been dealt, so you might as well focus on how to make the most of them. This doesn’t mean you should never want more. It just means that you should never fall into the trap of believing that more will make you happy, because there’s no bigger mistake than spending your life trying to fill a hole that can never be filled.
So next time you find yourself yearning for retail fix, try asking yourself this: How many things are there in this world that I don’t already have, that I can honestly say I can’t live without? My guess is you’ll come up with a very short list.
All the best,