This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 7th September 2018
This is the last of my articles on the Ten Commandments. I’ve decided to look at the ninth and tenth commandments together because they deal with the same idea, coveting. Coveting is not a word we use so much today so I looked it up. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary it is defined as
“to want to have something very much, especially something that belongs to someone else . ”
That’s fairly straightforward but why is it so important as to require two commandments? Presumably we would want something because it is better than what we have. What is wrong with wanting something better? I think it is a very important part of human nature to want to improve. We are the only species capable of making changes that improve our world.
Take the houses we live in. When I was a wee boy I lived in a tenement building where three homes on each landing shared one toilet. Now I live in a house that has two toilets all to itself. We have a natural desire to want to improve ourselves and we often see that as meaning we need better things.
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, understood from his uncle’s study of the human mind that we all aspire to better ourselves. He found a way to harness this to persuade people to change their behaviour. At the end of World War I, one hundred years ago, American industry had geared up for war production. Now the war was over they needed people to buy things to replace the demands of the war.
Bernays put his ideas to work and devised a strategy to increase demand for cigarettes. He took up the campaign for emancipation of women and In a parade in New York had women parade smoking cigarettes under the banner of ‘Torches of Freedom’. Women smoking had been frowned upon now this was a campaign to get women to rebel and assert their equality with men. The market for cigarettes virtually doubled. Public relations had come to maturity. We can be persuaded to want something we don’t need.
It seems to me that we all need a positive self-image if we are to be happy. We need to know that we are important, that someone holds us in some regard. The effects of loneliness are corrosive and we can see this in the rise in the suicide rate. We are often persuaded that we can prove our importance by the things we have. For some that means wearing the latest fashion. We discard perfectly good clothes and replace them with something new. For me that usually results in a jacket that I am comfortable in being dumped and a new one purchased because my wife won’t be seen with me in the ‘shabby’ one.
Human relationships suffer the same way. We are constantly shown images of women with ‘perfect’ figures and men with muscular stomachs. We are persuaded that someone else’s wife of husband is better than the one we have and desire to have them. Marriages break up. Families are disrupted. Nobody is really happy.
Money is the other thing we desire because it can put us up there with the elite. Billionaires can display their wealth with multiple mansions, yachts and even personal planes. How we would love to be like them. The Lottery and the Euro Millions take in vast fortunes each week because we think that a big win would sort out all our problems. A couple of months ago someone I know won the Millionaire raffle on the lottery. He won one million pounds. He gave half of it to his son to buy a house and spread the rest over his nieces and nephews. He virtually gave it all away. He is a very happy man because he has solved problems for other people.
I have come across a few millionaires in my career. They all looked miserable. Rarely a smile crossed their faces. Their money never made them happy. On a flight earlier in the year I watched a film, “All the Money in the World” about John Paul Getty who was the world’s richest man. His grandson had been kidnapped and he refused to pay the ransom. It reminded me of an interview Alan Wicker did with him. He was unhappy living in England. He wanted to be in America but was afraid to fly in case the plane crashed and thought that a boat might sink so he had to stay put. He was thoroughly miserable.
How often do these things we covet actually make us unhappy? Surely we should be happier when we have them? But we don’t. How many people have be caught by the Nigerian scam where they get an email from a woman whose husband hid millions in a bank vault and she needs help to get it out. Send her the money to get access to the money and share in the riches. The money is sent and vanishes for ever.
It seems to me that this all brings unhappiness. I think I’ve spotted the reason. We are all striving for happiness. To be happy we must feel that we are respected and loved by others. We look around to find ways of achieving that. Of course we are looking in the wrong place. Popularity is a fleeting thing. You can be a hero today and be forgotten tomorrow. You are still the same person but the world moves on.
To achieve happiness you need to look at who you really are. You are not the sum of your possessions. You are not the person others see. You are unique. Your existence here is not random; you are here for a reason. Kojak’s catch phrase was “Who loves ya baby?” (If you remember that you are as old as me.) It is the key to happiness.
The answer is simply that you are loved by the only one who can really see you as you really are. You are loved by the God who made the universe and everything in it. If the creator of everything that exists loves you despite all the things you don’t like about yourself why would you worry about what anybody else thinks? You don’t need a private plane, a floating gin palace or Miss World on your arm. That’s why the ninth and tenth commandments tell you not to covet anything. Things make you unhappy. George, who gave away the million, is one happy man. You can be too.