Wealth: America’s White Elephant
- Wednesday, March 04, 2009
I have a new favorite game. It’s the white elephant gift exchange game. It’s got drama, strategy, and it’s simply fun.
Typically the gifts are inexpensive, humorous items, used items from home, and sometimes, they are just items clearly destined for the trash bin. Generally speaking, the maintenance cost of the gift exceeds its usefulness. A white elephant gift is typically something no one else wants.
In their book, Generosity, Gordon MacDonald and Patrick Johnson describe the history of the while elephant. “In ancient days, when the king of Siam had an enemy he wanted to torment and destroy, he would send that enemy a very unique gift: a white elephant… a live, albino elephant. These animals were considered sacred in the culture of that day, so the recipient of the elephant had no choice but to intentionally care for the gift. This elephant would take an inordinate amount of the enemy’s time, resources, energy, emotions, and finances. Over time, the enemy would destroy himself because of the extremely burdensome process of caring for the white elephant.”
As I read their words, I couldn’t help but wonder how many “white elephant” gifts we’ve unintentionally bought ourselves (that DVD rewind-er no longer seems like a good purchase). Often, we get suckered into buying things we don’t need simply because it’s a “good deal.” One of the things I’ve learned is that sometimes even free things end up costing precious time and money in maintenance. Even things we can afford, and think we will enjoy, can end up being a "white elephant" item.
I'll illustrate this with a story from when my wife and I were first married. As newlyweds, Apryl and I “decorated” our apartment with garage sale furniture and other consignment store items. The only thing we bought new was a couch. Because the couch cost us “real” money, we were very careful with it. We couldn’t eat or drink on it (at least when Apryl was around). We cleaned it all the time and constantly worried about it. You could say it became a white elephant gift for us.
One day, I spilled a drink on the couch (we didn’t have kids yet so I had to fess up). I think it turned out for the better. We went from constantly worrying about the couch to not caring nearly as much. This couch that we once valued simply became another thing to take care of. There was freedom in that spill (and it got me off the hook).
That couch has served as a great reminder to us that everything we have is just stuff and our stuff can get in the way of important things. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-couch. I actually think couches are good to have. The point I’m making is that we have to be careful not to allow our things to become burdensome.
Solomon also had this problem, and his struggles are chronicled in Ecclesiastes 2:10-11: Anything I wanted, I took. I did not restrain myself from any joy. I even found great pleasure in hard work, an additional reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless. It was like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. While Solomon’s wealth provided temporary joy, it ultimately resulted in nothing. You could say his wealth was a white elephant gift. At first, it appeared to be good, but ultimately the maintenance cost (including his time) far exceeded the value of what he had. The more he had, the less meaning his life had.
Author John Steinbeck wrote a letter to Adlai Stevenson which was recorded in the Washington Post on January 28th, 1960. He said “A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much, and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.”
As I reflect on our nation’s history I can’t help but see how true his words are. Our nation has had so much for so long, we have begun to believe that it is one of our God-given rights. I can see someone adding to the words of our Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… and the right to have lots of stuff.
Unfortunately, too many of us have become distracted by pursuing the wrong things. Too many of us have made the mistake of buying into the American Dream instead of the Kingdom Vision.
You see, when we focus on pursuing "The American Dream" we become inwardly focused and end up with a lot of white elephants in our homes. When we focus on pursuing the Kingdom Vision we become outwardly focused and end up with a lot of lives touched by either us or the ministries we support. These lives changed are not white elephants who drain our time and resources. In fact, they become resources for God's Kingdom and in turn touch more lives; it is a gift that continues to give for generations. And, that is a gift worth opening every time.
Published March 13, 2009
Steve Scalici, CFP® is the Senior Vice President of Treasure Coast Financial, located in South Florida. Steve is available to speak to your church or organization. You can contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or 772-600-1053. Steve is a registered representative of INVEST Financial Corporation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of INVEST Financial Corporation.
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