To Have More – Pleonexia

midas

Addictions are strange things. I have a friend who says that the problem with alcohol is that there “simply isn’t enough.” Non-addicts frequently misunderstand. I once heard someone say to an addict, “When you decided to go down that road…” There is very little decision within an addiction. The disease of addiction itself does the choosing. The person involved often watches helplessly as they go through the motions of yet another round, watching everything head in a direction over which they feel powerless.

First the man takes a drink.
Then the drink takes a drink.
Then the drink takes the man.

This is easily described in terms of alcohol and drugs. However, I believe we are a culture of addicts. Those on drugs and alcohol are simply lucky enough to be able to see their addiction more clearly.

Within the list of sins that come up in the Scriptures, “drunkenness” has its honorable mentions. However, there is a deeper addiction, far more pervasive, that plays a greater role, both in Scripture and in our own lives: greed. This little English word seems rather quaint. It sounds like something that belongs in a Dickens novel. Indeed, it is so removed from our working moral vocabulary that it can be proclaimed (without blushing), “Greed is good.” Greek has a much richer term: pleonexia. It means “the desire to have more.” And that definition suggests a much larger and pervasive problem indeed.

“To have more” lies at the heart of modern civilization. Wealth and prosperity at ever-increasing levels are held as promises to be desired. We often measure our economies by growth rather than any measure of well-being. Greed for us means nothing more than wanting too much. We fail, however, to challenge the wanting itself.

I am not concerned with economic theory here, except in the relations that can be called the “spirituality” of the culture. If there is a spirituality of consumerism, it is best described as pleonexia, greed. It is what drives consumers. It is sadly true that if greed were to cease tomorrow, the world as we know it would collapse. We have no inherent control on greed other than the limits of our credit cards.

If our desire to have more is to be maintained at its required level, we ourselves are required to believe in it and to agree to participate in it. And here our addiction comes to the fore. We not only desire to have more, we often find ourselves powerless to desire less. “Buyer’s remorse” is not a fiction – it is the consumer’s version of a hangover.

If the desire to have more were limited to material goods, it would, perhaps, be but a bothersome thing. However, the disease of pleonexia is spiritual and infects the whole of our lives. Pleonexia is not a disease that can be isolated to a single area of our lives. We want more of everything: more things, more sex, more food, more entertainment, ad infinitum.

In the Kingdom of God, self-emptying is the principle of true existence (cf. Phil 2:5-11). And so we find ourselves enthralled by a spiritual principle of the deepest irony: we crave more which draws us further and further away from our very being. The more we gain, the less we exist.

“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” This saying of Christ is daily being fulfilled in the course of our lives. It is worth noting that the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn rediscovered his faith when he was in the Gulag prison system of the Soviet Union. Strangely, the emptiness of that bleak existence became a treasure for him. When he was first released into external exile, he managed to find a small shack in which to live. He had no money to furnish it. He found a couple of boxes to serve for a bed. When his circumstances later improved and he gained an apartment, he took the boxes with him for his bed. He feared the road of pleonexia and treasured the spiritual freedom he had found in poverty.

The Orthodox way of life purposefully asks us to renounce the spirit of Mammon. We fast, we practice generosity – and we do so as a way of life. We were not created for acquisition. Our life is found in the Cross. The Cross is both the place Christ accomplished our salvation, as well as the way of salvation itself. It is the wisdom as well as the power of God. The wisdom of the Cross is the self-emptying of Christ. This self-emptying is not anti-life, but the actual mode of true-existence. “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Mat 16:25)

There are many who concern themselves greatly about how a nation’s economy works (just post an economic thought on Facebook and watch the traffic). Most of our thoughts are generated by the same consumer/political/information conglomerates who press us towards consumption in the first place. For the time being, Christians should satisfy themselves that their own renunciation of consumerism will not bring the entire economy to a halt. But if we refuse to turn away from the manifold forms of pleonexia, then the whole of our soul will be in danger.

Thinking about the spirituality of pleonexia, we do well to examine the whole of our lives. Our desire to have more drives others away from us, or places them in the position of begrudging competitors. They interfere with my time, my plans, my interests, my pleasure, etc.

For Christ’s sake, lose your life. Why should you keep trying to gain the world?

32 comments:

  1. Excellent post Father. As a recovering functional alcoholic (it took years to convince me I had a problem because I never did anything that got me in trouble while drinking) and having taught many years in Substance Abuse both in a church setting and in prison I whole heartedly support your analysis that what we are really talking about is a spiritual disease/dysfunction.
    We are a people who flee suffering of any kind. If we have a headache, most run to the medicine cabinet to grab their favorite bottle of pain reliever. Some choose aspirin, some Tylenol, some Motrin. Whichever we choose, it is the one that “works” for us. When we have spiritual pains, we again rush to the cabinet for our favorite elixir whether its alcohol, sex, illegal drugs, legal drugs, excessive shopping, sexual escapades, adrenaline highs. The list is endless. What makes anything into an addiction is the underlying reason for our use. If we are using or doing in an addictive way it is because we are trying to change the way we feel because we don’t like our feelings.
    That sounds harmless in many cases, but the lie is that this substance or behavior is what we need. It is untrue and we find we need more and more often because the successive “fixes” lose their potency and we need more and more often. This is where the self destructive spiral sets in.
    We as a people, have lost the idea of bearing our sufferings as our cross and, as you have said, our own Self Emptying. We want to be pain/problem free and we want it NOW. We have no concept of enduring.
    My problem/pain was PTSD among others. I drank to get numb and forget. I did not want the thoughts, feelings and mental images in my head. I did not want to feel as I felt and I had a favorite spirit ache medicine. As always, it turned into more and more often as my body and mind adapted to reduce the duration and intensity of my “medicinal” treatment.
    It did not occur to me that the real and enduring answer is the walk of faith, embracing my cross, confessing my sins and trusting in Him Who has borne it all. Thanks be to God that I finally heard that still small voice in the storm that was my life.
    Great post, Father it puts many of your previous posts into perspective. I am reminded of the Hebrew word we translate often as vanity in Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity. The Hebrew word is Hevel which means a dry and empty wind.

  2. Excellent. I was thinking the very same thing recently, that we are a culture of addicts. In consuming endlessly, we are consumed.

    While materialistic consumption is certainly a defining factor of our society, I see too an utter addiction to information. We crave the next notification, the next comment, the next social networking affirmation. All of this creates a virtual world where we can shield ourselves and numb ourselves to the complexities of true existence.

    This addiction to consuming things and information keeps us from self-knowledge, the first step in any kind of spiritual awareness. Every moment is filled with an inundation of noise, and so we become the “hollow men” that T.S. Eliot wrote about. I have a strong desire to be free of this addictive web.

  3. Great post. I am reminded of a link someone posted here awhile back (which I will repost) where Gabor Mate spoke about the true nature of addiction:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1h4Yea2dG8U

    He talks about how addictions persist not so much because the substance in question is actually that addictive, but because the pain that drove the person to the substance still persists. His example was of all the opium that US soldiers in the Vietnam war were taking – and then easily letting go when they were brought home, away from the conflict and craziness of war.

    In reference to this post I believe greed is a response to the great spiritual vacuum in our lives. And we keep ingesting “Styrofoam pellets” as poor substitutes. Ironically the pellets fill us with emptiness and make us even more starved for true spiritual nourishment. This only increases our rapacious desire to consume more. And so the vicious cycle continues unabated.

    It is only in allowing the pellets to pass (fasting) and turning to the true food (prayer) that we will ever find sustenance. The difficulty in this path partially lies in the fact that this new way of receiving nourishment feels so different than our current one. There is no big rush of happiness when we receive Christ into ourselves. We are sustained but the pain of living is not relieved, at least not in the ways we expect.

    And greed is easy to come by. Everybody’s doing it. In fact you are odd if you’re not participating in this national pastime. Any other way of living is greatly resisted.

  4. It is worth noting that the drive not to feel pain is instinctual. Indeed, the desire for “more,” is not exactly in itself sinful. Self-emptying is, surprisingly, written into our very nature (as we are created in the image of God). It is the unbalance and lack of integration that make our plight what it is. If the nous, properly healed, is the center of our being, then the self-emptying life of grace governs all these things and a healthy, salvific life is possible.

    All of those recovering addicts (and there are indeed many), are living proof that the grace of self-emptying love is not foreign to us. These are not people we would necessarily think of as great moral heroes and the like. They are just normal people who got sick enough to get well. Well-being is not foreign to our fundamental constitution. But if certain things are not healed and restored, the distintegration and dysfunction of the soul/body will carry us deeper and deeper into the hell-hole of darkness.

    I often think of the movie Citizen Kane – and the last scene at Xanadu. “Rosebud.”

  5. Fr. Stephen,

    Excellent point. I would venture to say that none of our inborn instincts are bad in themselves; it’s just that these instincts are so…re-appropriated, have been taken over and pointed elsewhere. We end up living like the Lord of the Rings orcs, who were originally elves but were so tortured so continuously that they ended up “bent” and deformed.

    I also think this way living in the proper manner – in this case, self-emptying instead of filling – seems so foreign, so wrong. Whenever I hear the lyrics of St. Francis’ song…

    Oh Master, grant that I may never seek
    So much to be consoled as to console.
    To be understood as to understand,
    To be loved as to love with all my soul.

    I know them to be true in my understanding, but much of me still feels like they’re so backwards. Like standing at the edge of a cliff and being told to jump instead of being cautioned away from it.

    I suppose this is the essence of faith, take a step when you’ve been lame your whole life or doing the work of seeing when you’ve been born blind but now can see.

    And this is something my heart, my hands, my very soul must learn through actually walking the life you speak of. Head learning is of limited value. God have mercy.

  6. Great post and comments!!! Thank you….

    I’m reminded of an amazing verse that appears in a couple of the Psalms

    ‘There have they feared where no fear is’

    My fear is a great teacher …. it helps me to understand what I see as providing my purpose, my worth, and my security. My reactions suggest a deep seated belief that my purpose is to be comfortable and entertained … my worth is in the praise of others …my security lies in a bank account or 401K. Letting go of these fears is difficult … and requires a willingness to be truly vulnerable ; to walk into my fear and discover what lies beyond them. This walk into my fear can begin to show me that something deeply lies within it. So, much of what we truly desire is in a ‘thirst’ for what God has implanted in me as the very vehicle for true communion with Him. Dumitru Staniloae has this very powerful way of describing this in his chapter of Purification in his book Orthodox Spirituality.
    ____

    Now the infinite thirst of the passions in themselves is explained this way. The human being has a spiritual basis and therefore a tendency toward the infinite which also is manifested in the passions, but in these passions the tendency is turned from the authentic infinite which is of a spiritual order, toward the world, which only gives the illusion of the infinite. Man without being himself infinite, not only is fit, but is also thirsty for the infinite and precisely for this reason is also capable of, and longs for, God, the true and only infinite (homo capaz divini – man capable of the divine). He has a capacity and thirst for the infinite not in the sense that he is in a state to win it, to absorb it in his nature – because then human nature itself would become infinite – but in the sense that he can and must be nourished spiritually from the infinite, and infinitely. He seeks and is able to live in a continued communication with it, in a sharing with it. But man didn’t want to be satisfied with sharing in the infinite, or he believed that he is such a center, he let himself be tricked by his nature’s thirst for the infinite.

    The human being then, didn’t understand that the infinite thirst of his nature isn’t an indication of the infinity of that nature, because the true infinite can’t be thirst. It’s only a sign of its capacity to communicate with the infinite, which isn’t a property of his nature. So, the human being, instead of being satisfied to remain in communication with the true infinite, and to progress in it, wanted to become himself the infinite. He tried to absorb in himself or to subordinate to himself everything that lent itself to this relation of subordination: dead objects, finite things. Instead of quenching his thirst for the infinite. Instead of quenching his thirst for the infinite, he sought to gather everything around himself, as around a center. But because man isn’t a true center in himself, this nature of his took revenge; it made him in reality run after things, even enslaving him to them. So passion, as a tireless chase after the world, instead of being an expression of the central sovereignty of our nature, is rather a force which carries us along against our will; it’s a sign of the fall of our nature into an accentuated state of passivity. Our nature, whether it wants to or not, still has to express its tendency for a center outside of itself. By the passions, this center was moved from God to the world. Thus the passions are the product of a tortuous impulse of our nature, or of a nature which has lots its simplicity and tendency to move straight ahead.

  7. Eating when you are hungry fulfills a desire, but obviously is not sinful. But some foods get us “high,” and we end up craving more to fulfill a desire that has nothing to do with hunger. Soon we have a hard time distinguishing the difference between the two different desires. When I start feeling “hungry” sometimes I use a little trick to distinguish; I offer myself some plain fruits or vegetables to satisfy the “hunger.” If an apple and a salad is appealing then I know I’m actually hungry. If I’d rather pass on them, but keep eyeballing the leftover pizza in the fridge, well, then I know what’s really going on.

    Problem is, while this trick works well with food, I still can’t figure out how to distinguish between good desires and bad desires when it comes to things like basic comforts vs luxeries, and innocent vs excessive entertainment, etc. I’m so lost in the consumerist way of life I honestly cannot discern good from bad in most situations. For instance, TV. Should I even own one in this state? Because I don’t know how to discern how to use it properly. Same goes for the internet.

  8. Sam,

    You write “This addiction to consuming things and information keeps us from self-knowledge…” and close with “I have a strong desire to be free of this addictive web.”

    I agree with both statements. To your last sentence I will add this: Along with having the desire I am becoming more and more aware of my responsibility to take the necessary steps to free myself from (much of) this addictive web. Playing on the internet is time-consuming; doing so takes a lot of time–MY time. (Don’t even ask how long it took me to compose just THIS paragraph to try to explain what I am sensing–and I’m still not satisfied with the wording.)

    Were I to stay off the internet for, say, the next two hours, I could devote that time to enhancing my self-knowledge. For two straight, uninterrupted hours I could slowly read some Psalms, reflect on their content, and learn so very much about myself. I might even pick up a clue or two about how to “lose my life.”

    At the beginning of each day, I need to remind myself of what my priorities are or what they should be, or both.

  9. There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more; the other is to desire less,” GK Chesterton

  10. Wow. This post and all your wonderful comments certainly speak to so much of what we struggle with these days! I was raised poor, and taught never to throw out anything that can be used. I raised a large family on very little, and I felt the pressure to always be sure everyone had what they needed – somehow. I shopped sales, stocked up on foods, clothes on sale, whatever I knew would be needed. My greatest fear was not having the money to get something that was needed. Unfortunately, that followed me on past that time in life, and became something negative. I cluttered and continued to stock up like I had to feed a family, after the kids were grown and gone. I felt that pressure to provide still. My marriage 7 yrs ago, and becoming Orthodox thru my husband, and my experiences at St. George, has changed it some, but it took therapy and help to change the patterns of thinking. I absolutely could not throw out or give away anything that could be used by someone else. I have learned to let go, and trust God that if there is a real need, He will provide the means to take care of it.
    Letting go of over 60 yrs of fear is not easy, and it takes a lot of prayer and working with a therapist, as well as help from my husband and friends. I am finding joy in giving away things that others can use, and feeling it is right. I give them back to God, and trust He will find people who need them. Letting go of things that have meaning to me is the hardest. Recently though, I was reminded thru the floods nearby that if I had only minutes to save something before I left the house, what would I take? None of the things I thought I would. I realized that all the pictures and wedding albums were not that important – other people have copies of the pictures. I have the memories. Remembering that should I die, nothing I leave behind will matter to me anymore, except the people I love, I realized nothing material was really all that important anymore. I am working thru an addiction of fear, and really hoping for a day soon when my house is very neat and minimal, and I no longer feel any need to buy something on sale because we “might” need it. There are many types of addiction, and after having to worry constantly about money for most of my life, just being able to buy something I really did not need was such a luxury!! It also became addicting for a while, then I dealt with the bills and realized it did not fill the emptiness inside. God and my faith do that now, and I do not feel the compulsion to buy things that I once did. Fortunately for others, I have a lot of things to donate, and each one makes me feel better – for helping someone else, and for clearing another thing from my home. I am loving living with less, and planning to get back to the very basic things we need. Thank you Father, for addressing the pain and suffering of addiction. It is so hard to deal with. I know the addiction to alcohol and drugs has caused extreme pain and damage to many people in my life.
    God bless everyone who is fighting it daily, and winning. Even starting over again to stay off them is such an accomplishment! God be with you all.

  11. Thank you for the thoughts on addiction/alcoholism, Father/Nicholas/Sam. I’ve long suspected that denying affinity with the alcoholic/addict is a red flag that one suffers from the same spiritual disease, though perhaps the symptoms are different.

    Alcoholism and addiction have been part of my family story for my whole life. Your article is an interesting synchronicity for me, having just read Fr. Weber’s “12 Steps of Transformation” and Bill W.’s Big Book. I strongly suspect that many of what we call “personality disorders” are also various manifestations of that same spiritual disease, in addition to pleonexia (thanks for the word!).

  12. Addictions are as much a part of our bodies as our less corporeal selves. My body frequently overrides my better judgement and conscious will.

    It is all part of loving the created thing more than the creator. Believing the nihilist lie.

  13. Where can I find out more about the story you mention about Alexander Solzhenitsyn using the boxes for his bed please?

  14. I am reading this over and over, and saving a copy. Thank you Father for the post.
    It touches each of us in a different way, and we all have things that we allow the passions to override our spiritual self on. We struggle, and we pray for help.
    Each time we grow a bit in knowledge, and God’s strength.
    I feel a bit shocked, and humbled by what I shared. I don’t talk about it. Maybe that is part of the problem. We all have things about us that we struggle with, and perhaps sharing more will help us all be stronger.
    Blessings to all

  15. This takes ‘greed’ as a substance, a given. If you look deeper, greed is always fear: of loss, of exclusion, of hunger, of being seen as unworthy. These fears are real, but exaggerated. Greed dissolves in the face of abundance and assurance. Even greed as competition, or pride, is a strategy to be always included, always supplied, always seen as OK. Since there is enough, those are actually reasonable desires.
    What if we assured one another that no one will be excluded, hungry, or perceived as unworthy? That is, if we really shared, not only the money and food economies, but the attention economy, the social household, the participation and inclusion stories.
    What if we arranged our great wealth, as a society, to assure everyone that he need not build up surpluses to be OK?
    Might work, you know. And better than a superficial idea of ‘greed’.

  16. Cyranorox,
    This is not a “superficial idea of greed.” Greed is a passion, as understood in the Fathers. Fear is one part of it, shame is another (and shame does not respond as easily to reassurance as your simple economic solution suggests.

    Of course, we could also suggest, “What if we love one another?” Utopian schemes, of course, have the benefit of always being correct but never being the fact at hand. We are not going to share (willingly). The larger part of Orthodoxy lived through the nightmare of promised utopian schemes under the communists and endured unspeakable suffering.

    “Might work, you know.” Don’t be absurd and naive.

    Of course, your suggestion has the benefit of blaming my greed on everyone else’s unwillingness to share all their stuff – and I remain a slave to my passions. The experience of life in the world shows us that the more you have (like being rich) does not suddenly cure greed. Indeed, the rich share less of their stuff than the poor. The highest per capita giving in the US (excluding the Mormons in Utah) is found in Mississippi where the income is the lowest in the country.

    Socialists often have great ideas of what to do with other people’s money. Christians give their own away.

  17. Thank you Father for this wonderful reply to the suggestions of a return to socialism 🙂

    I grew up a communist social state, there was plenty of greed and lack of sharing, and those who always had more then the rest. It was just differently disguised.

    I think this change from greed to simple sharing can only start with us, as does everything in spiritual life. If we are not willing to change ourselves and our behavior, we have no right to even suggest that to others.

    I went through a divorce a few years ago. We had some accumulated “wealth” to divide (some things difficult to divide: house, retirement accounts, and the easier stuff: furniture, dishes, kitchen towels, etc, etc) but it always seemed like the other side was getting away with keeping more…. It was not until I saw a greeting card at Trader Joe’s that had a simple quote on it (from Lao Tsu, I think) that I was able to stop the whole madness of this very painful “dividing process”. The card said: “To know when you have enough is to be rich beyond measure”.

    Aren’t we *all* already rich beyond measure?

  18. Thanks as well, Father. The utopian idea will always be destroyed by the reality of the nature of humanity. And simple sharing is never enough; we must give away our reliance on this world. Thanks again.

  19. Byron,
    The “might work, you know” comment was almost painful in its naivete. The blood of millions cries out from the Gulag. Utopians are among the most dangerous people in history. A college student at Church last year asked, “Who was Solzhenitsyn?” I made me wonder if the generation that grew up since ’89 have any concept of what was endured.

  20. This latest generation is purposely made unaware of the past (in large part, I believe, because so much of the pain and human destruction that took place happened in societies much like that to which we are being moved). Apparently, it interferes with the social indoctrination that is alive at this time in our country. It is very much a sign of the times, I’m afraid.

  21. I am almost tempted to accept the Utopian ideal as one of the forces that push people into addiction and compulsive consumerism, because the ideal can never be reached in reality, as Byron quite correctly points out, because of human nature.

  22. Byron,
    The idea of history being repeated through ignorance has much merit. We are headed down the drain to another failed experiment in social engineering and Utopian thinking.

  23. Obviously I saved this post – I sensed its relevance but it wasn’t until recently that I understood more. It seems that addiction results from running away from something, but also from running TO something. In my case, the quest, this time, for the ultimate winter coat, warm but light, sporty but classic, expensive but on sale… every Eddie Bauer email tempting. I rationalized, tried praying, “giving it to God”,but I kept taking it back. What was finally shown to me is that what I really am needing is security, comfort and warmth…from a heavenly Father. I still have that desire, and it’s not disguised as a winter coat.

  24. Helen, well said!!! I can relate to your quest, and I am working on breaking my addiction to the feeling when you find what seems just perfect, but of course later proves to be far less. Facing our own fears that cause us to behave in the unhealthy or addictive ways we do – is hard. It requires real repentance, confession, and facing things about ourselves that we don’t want to as well. I am in that process now, and see so many others that are MUCH worse but continually feed the addiction. I pray for them. I am, like you, working actively to be grateful for the things I need being provided, and things I have in my life now. My goal is to reduce my belongings to a much more basic amount, and donate to worthy causes all that simply takes up space in our small home. My husband Michael is a good example of having what he needs but needing/wanting little more of material goods. He leads by example in so many ways, and helps me see the ways I can make changes too.
    The passions are at the root of so much that is wrong in our lives. Fear is a big part of greed. Lack of a real relationship with God is too. Some strive to fill that empty place with shopping and material things. Sadly it never works and they have to keep buying more and more. I am blessed to have so many, and so much in my life. They keep me trying to get past the fears and trust God to provide. Thank you Fr. Stephen, for yet another wonderful and thought provoking post.

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