The first video-game system I ever owned was the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and the first game I owned was the game that came packaged with it: Super Mario Bros. I don’t think I ever won it, but I spent countless hours playing it.
However, even at the time, there was something about the game that puzzled me. Whenever you finished a level, the game would pause for a moment to calculate the points you had scored in that level. You got extra points for finishing the level more quickly, and probably for some other things I don’t remember 30 years later.
Those points, though, had zero effect on the outcome of the game. You could hit an all-time high in points scored, then go on to the next level and die ingloriously (my particular nemesis was World 8-1). Your points could do nothing to help you avert that outcome. In the context of the game, they were fundamentally meaningless.
I don’t know how many people paid attention to the points in Super Mario Bros., but I fear that an awful lot of people pay attention to the real-world equivalent. In this life, there are things that matter, but there are also plenty of things that don’t. However, many of the things that don’t are shiny and draw our attention (like the points-counting screen at the end of the level), so that we end up focusing on them rather than more important alternatives.
Take, for instance, that most American pursuit, the accumulation of Stuff. How many of us would say, “I have way too much room in my house. My closets, garage, and basement are empty. There’s nothing in my kitchen cabinets. Whatever will I do with all of this space?”
Not I, for sure. I hate buying things. I grumble every time I have to shell out cash. I moved SIX MONTHS AGO, after a purge of Stuff that would have appalled Chairman Mao with its brutality. And yet, somehow, all of the closets in my house (that looked so spacious six months ago) are full, and at times, I find myself musing about how convenient it would be to have a basement to fill with Stuff.
Stuff is points, plain and simple. It does us no good. After we buy it, we don’t even like it. And yet, we find ourselves staying in stressful jobs and racking up credit-card debt so that we can buy more Stuff. Meanwhile, our family lives and our spiritual lives suffer.
What on earth are we doing to ourselves?
Most people wouldn’t say, “My goal in life is to accumulate as much junk as possible.” Those who would say such things, um, aren’t very smart. However, even though this isn’t our goal, even though most people would agree that a life lived in the service of crass materialism is a wasted life, somehow stuff replaces in actual significance the things that we hold most dear.
When it comes to Stuff-itis, as with all other things, the key is to make sure that our behavior aligns with our values. Why do I work the way that I work? Is it because I love my job? Is it because I find the work that I do to be deeply meaningful? Is it because I’m working toward financial independence so that I can spend the rest of my life doing good? Do I have to work this much to provide my family with the necessities of life (note that iPhones, etc., don’t count as necessities)? Or, instead, am I working for the sake of a bloated paycheck that I will blow on consumerist kibble?
I’m fond of observing that most wounds are self-inflicted. We do more damage to ourselves than anybody else does. So it is with the life lived in pursuit of what does not and cannot satisfy. You reach the end of your life, having accumulated a glut of Stuff (“Look at the size of that estate sale!”), only to discover that you have failed to accomplish anything significant at all. Sure, the number on the screen is impressive, but Bowser is laughing as the digitized funeral music plays.
That too is fundamentally meaningless.