We all know it’s easy to get unhinged this time of year. It can be the overload of “How am I ever going to get everything for everybody on my list between now and Christmas and still sleep?” to “Which side of the family are we going to anger this year, since we can’t be everywhere at once?” to “You need HOW MANY cookies for the school party tomorrow?”
Christmas – the day Christians celebrate the coming of the God-Made-Man, Emmanuel – can turn very quickly from revelry to unraveled.
What to do? If you’re Arthur Brooks, you talk to a guru in India.
Take into account that the Indian guru was a Texan economist who became disenchanted with his life, and headed across the globe to figure things out. But still, he had some good things to say to Brooks.
I was more than a little afraid to hear what this capitalist-turned-renunciant had to teach me. But I posed a query nonetheless: “Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?” I held my breath and waited for his answer.
“It’s good,” he replied. “It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.”
This was not what I expected. “But you own almost nothing,” I pressed. “I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.” He laughed at my naïveté. “There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.” The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.
The abundance that sometimes overwhelms us during the holiday season is actually life-saving for millions of others. We don’t need to get rid of prosperity; we simply need perspective. Brooks says we can gain perspective by doing three things. First, go for experience over “stuff.” Take your kid ice-skating vs. giving her another toy. Second, “usefulness” can be overrated. We should sometimes do things for fun, or because they’re silly or make us laugh. Instead of those practical stocking stuffers go for Slinkies and Silly-Putty. Finally, Brooks says, “get to the center of the wheel.”
In the rose windows of many medieval churches, one finds the famous “wheel of fortune,” or rota fortunae. The concept is borrowed from ancient Romans’ worship of the pagan goddess Fortuna. Following the wheel’s rim around, one sees the cycle of victory and defeat that everyone experiences throughout the struggles of life. At the top of the circle is a king; at the bottom, the same man as a pauper.
The lesson went beyond the rich and famous. Everyone was supposed to remember that each of us is turning on the wheel. One day, we’re at the top of our game. But from time to time, we find ourselves laid low in health, wealth and reputation.
If the lesson ended there, it would be pretty depressing. Every victory seems an exercise in futility, because soon enough we will be back at the bottom. But as the Catholic theologian Robert Barron writes, the early church answered this existential puzzle by placing Jesus at the center of the wheel. Worldly things occupy the wheel’s rim. These objects of attachment spin ceaselessly and mercilessly. Fixed at the center was the focal point of faith, the lodestar for transcending health, wealth, power, pleasure and fame — for moving beyond mortal abundance. The least practical thing in life was thus the most important and enduring.
We can all use a bit more revelry and a lot less unraveling. Experience the wonder of Christmas.