You Can’t have it all. A meditation on the need for simplicity and the modern tendency to be overwhelmed.

By Chris Piascik Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Chris Piascik Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The first video at the bottom of this post is a remarkable portrait of a man who is overwhelmed, simply overwhelmed. He cannot live up to the expectations that are upon him, expectations from himself, and others.

One of the paradoxes of our time is that we have attained to an amazing possession of creature comforts (at least in the West) but, in many ways we have never been so uncomfortable. Stress and worry along with a gnawing dis-satisfaction accompany our high standard of living. The more we have the more worry.

In a way, we have “too much to lose” and we want and expect so much that we’re never satisfied. There is a kind of slavery that comes with possessions. If we are not careful our possessions end up possessing us. Further they set loose desires in us that become extreme and difficult to master. In the end our desires expand with each new thing we get. It is like a man who over eats. His stomach stretches and so he must eat more each time to feel full. The Book of Ecclesiastes says,

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless….The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccles 5:10,12)

The Second video is a Traveller’s Insurance Ad that well depicts how our possessions cause us worry and make us restless. Of course, they claim to have the solution. If you just buy their insurance, all your worries will vanish. Nevertheless it is a cute and poignant ad.

Two videos that well depict our times.

A Source of the Problem – Clearly the sense of being overwhelmed and fearful because we “have too much to lose” are notions that are created in us by some thought or philosophy.

I want to propose to you that one of the deepest sources of our stress today comes from the notion that “you can have it all.” That’s right, the house in the suburbs, with cathedral ceilings in the great room, granite counter-tops, wide screen TVs, nice yard, great location, fancy SUVs, well, you know the list.

But this is a lie. We cannot have it all. We have to make choices. Life involves trade-offs. Choosing one thing means that we have to say to say “no” to other things. Parents can’t always have double careers, double-incomes AND raise their kids well. Choices have to be made. Fathers can’t always climb the career ladder and still be reasonably present to their wife and children. The big house in the suburbs isn’t always a viable option if it means long commutes, time away from family, high mortgages that require overtime and part time jobs. Buying all the latest electronic gadgets isn’t always wise if we want to set money aside for the children’s education, or for retirement.

We simply can’t have it all. We have to decide what is important and make real choices that reflect our priorities.

But as it is, we often want too much and right away. We entertain the illusion that we can somehow have it all. This attitude then fuels unrealistic expectations. Not only can I have it all, I should have it all. And if I don’t have have it all then I am either resentful, or worried that I don’t measure up to other people’s unrealistic expectations. The old saying goes, Most of us spend money we don’t have, and buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like. All of this is a recipe for stress, anxiety and anger.

What to do? Decide! Decide what is important to you and build your life around that. It’s going to mean that some other things have to go. If family and raising your kids is your priority, then always accepting the promotion may have to go if it means significantly less time at home. Some people do choose to wholly dedicate themselves to some work or cause. Fine. But think twice about getting married just now and don’t be so irresponsible as to have kids if you’re going to be off chasing your star. You likely can’t have both.

As for possessions, simplify. It is far better to live in a smaller house in a less “up and coming” neighborhood and actually know your spouse and kids, than to live in the big house on the hill and have the whole place filled with anger and anxiety about money and you off at work for long hours pleasing the boss so you can get the promotion and actually afford the darn thing.

The book of Proverbs says: Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil. Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred (Prov 15:16-17).

In the end, less is more. We want too much. We think we can have it all. Not true, it just distracts and tortures us. Psalm 86:11 says, Make simple my heart, O Lord. Ask the Lord to help you desire what is good and best and then to build your life and priorities around that. You can’t have it all. You have to decide. Life involves trade-offs.

We must learn this deeply. Otherwise expect to be overwhelmed and owned by what you claim to possess. A simple heart is a gift to pray for: Simplex fac cor meum Domine! (Make simple my heart O Lord!) Ps 86:11.

Here is a remarkable portrait of modern man: overwhelmed and anxious, fearful that he does not measure up to the unrealistic expectations of the world. And yet he seems unable to decide what is really important.

And here is a cute but poignant video about how our wealth affords us no rest.

11 Replies to “You Can’t have it all. A meditation on the need for simplicity and the modern tendency to be overwhelmed.”

  1. You are right, Monsignor! Choices do have to be made. I have cut back on my work schedule to spend more time with my children. Once I pay off my mortgage, I plan to further reduce my office hours. In order to afford a babysitter who comes to our house, we eat inexpensive things like soup and pasta. And I buy my children clothing from Walmart and thrift shops instead of expensive boutiques. I haven’t bought myself clothing in years! I do my own nails, and cut my own hair because salons are too costly for me right now.

    I have ponies for my children, but they are backyard ponies. A show barn was expensive and time consuming and I hated all that social competition anyway. (I used to ride competitively)
    When I was young I thought I could have it all. Not so, but life is good anyway, even without granite countertops, blue ribbons from horse shows, and expensive clothing. 🙂

    I wonder if all these public shootings have something to do with people being bitter and dissatisfied that their own lives don’t measure up to tv.

  2. Well said, Father! My wife and I downsized six years ago and paid off all of our debt. If only people knew how good it feels to live with less and be free from the tyranny of debt! We are on a limited income, but feel like we’re rich. We are now in the process of downsizing to an even smaller place in order to live a life more conformable to the Gospels. Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate! And it feels so good to have less and less ‘stuff’ to worry about.

  3. these are words I need to memorise not just read. Thanks for the deep and wonderful article.

  4. This goes well with today’s readings (Lectionary: 486). You’re right, as usual, especially about priorities. I would just like to stress that God must be priority Numero Uno. No excuses that may deny us taste His Dinner.

  5. Be simple as i am simple, says the lord. Time will come again here on earth where life, in order to live, you will just have to plant fruits and veggies. All will vanished except new heaven and new earth.

  6. Good article.

    This is so much true and in a special way, at this time of the year when the days are shorter and the nights longer.

  7. Though I wrote this sentence months ago, I think it perfectly fits with Monsignor’s post, that is, the motto of a rock song:

    “I want it all… and I want it now!”

  8. Thanks for this reminder. My resolution for 2013 was/is to simplify my life. I have so much to manage, and all the excessive activities, plans, expectations (mine and others), and things only serve to add more stress to my life. So it’s “simplify, simplify, simplify” for me and my family. It takes time and a continual effort to change my ways and thinking.

    Have a blessed day, Monsignor! You’re in my prayers!

  9. Excellent use of Ecclesiastes again Monsignor! They don’t call it Wisdom literature for nothing!

  10. I heard this guy claim that anyone with an ipad and a wi-fi connection wasn’t poor. I guess he was assuming food money and a place to sleep for everyone. Interesting claim.

    Good post, although I think it clearer to us that we can’t have it all.

  11. Reminded of several things. An old saying about obsessive/compulsive behaviour in regard to the worldly. “More is better all is best.”
    Also, the parable of the widow’s mite. Mark 12:41-43 Luke 21:1-3
    This is an example of how she gave more with less. Empirically less in the worldly but relatively more in the heavenly sense. How can searching for more value on our scale of measure(s), rather than on God’s, be of value?
    Also a lesson on the once puzzling concept of the least being the most as stated in one of the outstanding recently introduced (on a historical scale) scientific principles (relativity) which we got to almost two thousand years later. Or, perhaps, almost two days that have just gone by or watches in the night. Psalm 90:4
    If we we pay attention to the challenging lessons of the New Testament perhaps there would be less obsession to impatiently bring in new sets of oppressive rules to avoid fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17 Luke 24:44 John 15:25) that comes with looking at the challenging lessons – instead of isolating in the “warm and fuzzy” ones. With patience we can wait for God to choose the time.

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