Thursday, February 1, 2007

Punxsutawney Phil and the Material World

In a few short hours we will have Punxsutawney Phil's prediction as to whether this winter will continue for another six weeks or be mercifully shortened. Yes, I know, global warming and all that, but I'm cold. I didn't move to Texas for snow in February, after all.

I can't think of Phil without thinking of the movie Groundhog Day, which was a movie I thought I'd hate, and hated to love. There was something pretty tremendous about seeing an insufferable jerk transformed into a decent and caring human being all through the simple mechanism of having only one day to live...over and over and over. Iterum iterumque, until he really does learn to make the best of each moment of that one day.

Which brings me to a conversation I had today with Matilda, about the post directly below this one. She made me realize that I might be painting the notion of 'materialism' with too broad a brush. (And if I only have the one brush, it's not due to any deep asceticism or anything like that.)

Although something like the slow cooker really is a 'luxury' item from one standpoint, in that it can't be considered a necessity and can easily be done without, Catholic lay people don't take a vow of poverty either, and are not prohibited from owning things that aren't strictly necessary. Rather, being caught up in materialism means spending too much time and attention on the acquisition and ownership of material goods, to the neglect of the spiritual and eternal values.

The danger, to me, is that we Americans live in a country and culture in which materialism is celebrated as the highest order of good. Advertisers spend insane amounts of effort and money on campaigns designed to make us want what we don't have, don't need, and would never desire on our own accounts. And all too often, we fall for it, without even beginning to realize that we have.

Driving to several different stores to get 'our' brand of a household item. Spending hours roaming through aisles of plastic bins to select the 'right' ones to hold the excess stuff we never use. Devoting whole weekends to choosing a lamp or a decorative accessory. Spending more than we can afford on the 'good' shoes or the 'handcrafted' furniture. And convincing ourselves that these things are virtuous.

In the truncated world of Phil Connors, Bill Murry's character in Groundhog Day, all of these things would be seen as what they are: a waste of time. Though at first the monotony of that repetitive day makes Phil choose things that are just as evanescent as these, in the end he finds meaning by striving for lasting values such as the ability to play music, a round of lifesaving trips, accomplishments in other fields. More than that, he chooses friendship over anonymity, managing to befriend a large number of people in the single day that he has to do so.

Our material goods can be blessings in our lives, and I know I fail to be thankful for them as I should be. But they can also be dangers, robbing us of the precious time we have to do things far more important than shopping. And they can tempt us to consider them important in themselves, instead of allowing us to form the proper detachment we should have to the things of this earth.

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