Henry David Thoreau maintained a very simple lifestyle in his 10-by-15-foot cabin near Walden Pond. His furniture consisted of three chairs, a desk, and a table, while the rest of his possessions included a limited range of cooking implements. Thoreau also valued simple tools, as well as lamplight, stationery, and a few books as necessities obtainable at trifling costs.
Thoreau, a Transcendentalist, was not a puritan denying himself material resources or avoiding pleasure in a search for spiritual nourishment from physical deprivation. Instead, he believed those with high goals should recognize their limited need for money and possessions. In his eyes, the danger of material things came from their potential addictiveness as they became the chief focus of life, consuming a great deal of time and energy.
But where Thoreau misses the mark is his belief that luxuries were detrimental to a good life; that they tend to cause more harm than good to those who are unlucky enough to be burdened by them.
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, it’s not a matter of whether you have few possessions or many; the problem arises when possessions become an end in their own rights, becoming the reason for our being. As Jesus says in Luke 12:15, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” We end up discontent because those things were never meant to fulfill us.
When we seek contentment by filling our lives with possessions or money, we only end up wanting more. Contentment isn’t something that we find in things, people, or circumstances. It is found in our convictions.
In an age of declining convictions and traditional faith, society has grown increasingly discontent. We have replaced biblical precepts with alternative endeavors.
One of the most popular of these endeavors revolves around political, rather than religious, dogma. With disciple-like devotion, people bow daily to their trusted media sources, allowing them to dictate which news should concern them, how they should view said news, and the appropriate reactions to it. Yet just as material possessions were never meant to be the reason for our being, neither were politics meant to be an end goal for our contentment.
Politicians rely on the tools of envy and greed to stir their audiences. They promise you a list of “free” things and proclaim that if you lack in anything, it is because the one percent have so much. Their wealth must be redistributed in order for you to have more. These ploys get a lot of traction today, as evidenced by the growing popularity of socialism and communism.
Yet as the Proverbs of Solomon point out, “A sound [or peaceful] heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” It’s no wonder that Karl Marx and Russia’s Communist party had to wage an ideological war against religion. If your audience is content, it is impossible to incite revolution.
Thoreau had valid points regarding contentment and our cluttered lives. We can live more simply while interacting with the beauty of nature. But true and lasting contentment needs to be found at a spiritual level, as we tap into the source of our being who brings contentment in all circumstances.
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Flickr-Tim Hettler, CC BY 2.0
Jon Henschen is president of Henschen & Associates, a Twin Cities-based firm that matches financial advisors to independent broker dealers.
He has more than 25 years of experience in the financial services industry and has worked as a registered financial advisor in both the independent and wirehouse channels.
Jon has been featured in numerous financial publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Reuters, and the New York Post.