Echo High School’s conversation about first world problems continued to cover some strange cultural territory. In December 2013, a District Judge sentenced a North Texas teenager to 10 years probation for drunk driving and killing four pedestrians and injuring eleven. This person killed four human beings and got off with rehab and probation. Why? His attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison. The defendant was witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in his father’s Ford F-350, speeding (70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone), and had a blood alcohol content of .24%, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas, when he was tested 3 hours after the accident. Traces of Valium were also in his system. A psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. The rehabilitation facility cost Texas taxpayers roughly $700 a day. This entire story is INSANE, but it is true. Affluenza might be the king of all “first world problems.” Affluenza is a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
Our relationship with stuff is silly. We worry about the model of our phone or the vintage of our laptop computers. We look at a closet full of clothes and declare: “I have nothing to wear.” We are addicted to more, and we don’t really have any plans to change. This is a major issue. Our consumption is off the charts. Our culture is one of consumerism. How can we have so much, yet feel as if we have so little? This is one of the major causes of AFFLUENZA – the stimulation of artificial needs. We forget how rich we are because we are a part of a system that constantly tells us we do not have. If we don’t have it, our lives are spent trying to get it. When we do get it, we don’t own it as much as it owns us. We measure “economic success” based on the Gross Domestic Product, or Gross National Product. The funny thing is, this might be the wrong measure. Think about a situation like divorce. A couple spends high amounts of money on legal services, then they split into two households and spending goes way up. This boosts the GDP, but does it indicate cultural progress or decline? If someone gets cancer, or there is an oil spill, or a forest was cut down for lumber…all of these things make the GDP rise but they might actually represent the decline of our culture not progress. No one thinks that family breakdown is good for our culture, but the GDP loves it. This is all to say that the answer for our deep spiritual needs is not going to be found in material goods.
What are the signs of Affluenza?
- CLUTTER – Too much stuff is not a good thing. We are the type that stockpile and hoard and accumulate, wanting what others have, always seeking more. Because of this, our calendars, our rooms, our garages, and our lives are full of clutter. Clutter is not just all the stuff that we keep around that rarely gets used. It is also the sense of urgency and the lack of focus and purpose with which we live. This is a symptom of not truly knowing what you need and what you want out of life. It is a symptom of living without laser focus and disciplined simplicity. It is difficult to filter out the ever-escalating demands for faster . . . newer . . . flashier . . . more. What we have to see is that this mentality is psychotic in that it has lost all touch with reality: we crave things we neither need nor enjoy. We buy things we do not need to impress people we do not like. Twice a year people in our neighborhood have a massive event where all the excess stuff in the community gets shuffled around to provide us with more money to buy more stuff. The idea of dependence on God should challenge our materialism and move us toward simplicity. Simplicity is a spiritual discipline that gives us needed perspective on our materialistic world. It allows us to see the provision of God as a gift that is not ours to keep and can be freely shared with others. It is an inward reality that leads to an outward expression. It is more than just getting rid of stuff – it is an inner attitude of the heart that acknowledges (1) What we have we received as a gift of God, (2) What we need God will care for, and (3) What we have is available to others. Simplicity is basically this: Seek first the Kingdom of God.
- WASTE – We use it and then throw it away. Much of our stuff is “designed for the dumpster.” Marketers use fancy terms like “planned obsolescence” to disguise their intention. They cannot have you truly satisfied by their product because you will never buy another one. Nothing is designed to last forever. Many things, like cell phones and electronics, are actually designed to fall apart or break down after a certain point. Other things are perfectly fine, but they convince you through marketing that they are out of style and need to be replaced. So we end up buying a new car every year, replacing our wardrobe with the latest fashions, and signing up for another contract with the phone company to get the “free” phone. What happens to our old stuff? It gets trashed. An attitude of waste comes from the assumption that the world exists for you, not the other way around. Americans consume at staggering rates. Each of us uses up 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. The idea that the “good life” means having what I want when I want it and being able to throw it away wastefully when I’m done with it is not sustainable. This is a value choice that means for me to enjoy life others must not. For me to have more, others must have less. Behind this behavior is bad theology. I see this attitude all the time in the church: basically that the earth is doomed so we should use it up without concern. I don’t see this in scripture. In scripture, I see God entrusting the care of this earth and its resources to people as he invites them to partner with him in realizing his vision for the world. The initial instructions that God gave to humanity were to care for the earth. The first marching orders for God’s Kingdom included the idea of being stewards of creation. Our wasteful attitude is a direct violation of that.
- Dissatisfaction. You cannot possibly be thankful and content if you are convinced that you deserve more than you are getting! We want far more than we need. We want a good number more things than we need and even more than we can actually use. We’re satisfied. We’re grateful. We’re content with our PS3, until one day we play hear about someone else’s PS4. Then we’re not content anymore, and we go back to our old and busted and ancient game system. We’re satisfied with our accomplishments until we see someone who has accomplished more, and we then we don’t feel very good. The Bible understands this tendency in our hearts. Paul wrote to his protégé, a young pastor named Timothy, trying to protect his heart from this lie of lack. Some false teachers at the time had fallen into the trap, and they began twisting God’s word to support their lifestyle of greed and exploitation. 1 Timothy 6:6 – “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Paul continues and tells Timothy to FLEE from all this stuff about lack and the pursuit of more! FLEE – run, go the other way, stay away from it, try to escape. We tend to do just the opposite and play right into the other story, the story of lack. And because of this we miss out on the story of contentment. The road out of this dark place is through a simple prayer: THANKS. “Thanks” shifts your perspective to what you have already received. It shifts your focus to the blessing, wealth, health, love, mercy, and favor that you are already experiencing. It gets your eyes off of what you lack and puts them on the abundance that you have. It stops envy, comparison, and malcontent from ensnaring your heart. It is a very simple choice: I will choose to be happy with what I already have.