The 10th Commandment
“You must not hanker after another person’s house, or wife, or manservant or maidservant, or cattle, or donkey, or anything that belongs to another person.”
This final commandment is about ‘coveting’, which means “to desire eagerly, to long for.” It’s what a buddhist would describe as “attachment”, but with a capital ‘A’. It includes comparing ourselves with others, as if we were in some sort of unnecessary and unhelpful competition. It’s about envy, which we mustn’t confuse with jealousy. Jealousy is guarding what I have, whereas envy is wanting what you have.
It’s about focussing on, and investing value and meaning in ‘things’ (which ‘things’, you’ll notice, can include the “wife” of someone else.) It’s about what nowadays we call ‘materialism, or ‘consumerism’, the idea that a person’s wellbeing and happiness depends fundamentally on obtaining, amassing and displaying consumer goods and material possessions. In our heart of hearts, however, we know that this is ultimately an empty delusion. The appeal of new material ‘things’ quickly diminishes with time and use. They suffer ageing, deterioration, damage or loss. They become rapidly out of date and unendingly need to be ‘upgraded’ to the newest, fastest, most outstanding version, which is very definitely ‘the last word’ – until the next one. They can also be stolen from us, especially if they’re too much on display in the public eye, or through house or car windows.
We seem so easily to be forgetful, for unless we’re very deprived or detached people, we must know from experience that what are most valuable and meaningful are not ‘things’, but experiences – which can’t be weighed and measured, or displayed and compared. The friendly gesture, the kindly word, the ready assistance, the supportive hug, the treasured photo, the sound of a voice, the memory of a place, the smell of a flower, the sight of a rainbow, hearing that piece of music, recalling that line of a song, meeting someone again after being apart for too long – the list is endless.
The Scottish poet, William Soutar, who was confined to bed for the last dozen or so years of his short life, wrote this in his diary, shortly before his death. “So much can wither away from the human spirit and yet the great gift of the ordinary day remains: the stability of the small things of life which yet in their constancy are the greatest. All the daily kindness: the little obligations, the signs of remembrance in the homely gifts: these do not pass, but still hearten the body and spirit to the verge of the grave.”
As so often, Jesus of Nazareth was on the ball when he said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” We need to set aside a moment each day, to press the stop button, then the reset button, and then the restart button, with priorities that come more from the heart than the head.
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