My son was sitting in one corner, reading a book (the book was upside down, but he was enjoying it anyway). My daughter was in the other corner having a tea party with some dolls. I was sitting on the couch making a shopping list and enjoying the respite. I sneezed. He picked up his head and looked my way. She too looked directly at me. We all smiled. Then, they both saw it… a small red Lego. It lay on the floor, alone as all of the others had been put away. The open tub of building blocks was right next to it, but the lone red one was calling them. They looked at each other, then quickly back at the coveted toy, then at each other, and the race was on….
"My Lego!!! My Lego!" she yelled, as she threw her beloved dolls out of the way and scrambled to her feet. "No! No!! Mine, mine!!" he disputed, the book forgotten on the ground as he pulled himself across the floor (my kids weren't much for crawling and did more of a scoot with one foot tucked under and one foot out to the side). She arrived first and threw herself on top of it. He arrived shortly thereafter and attempted to remove her and stake his claim.
Perhaps they didn't see the large tub of Legos right there next to the red one. I began building a fortress around the warring parties with all of the Legos from the tub. Still they fought. I sang a little song as I continued to build. This did not get their attention. I used the red ones around the top of my castle so that they would surely notice all of the identical duplicates of their cherished treasure. Cries of ownership still continued, as did the grabbing. Alas, I was forced to remove the troublesome toy from my daughter's grasp and place it out of reach in the closet with the other toys that had suffered the same fate.
With hundreds to choose from, it's obvious that the appeal of that one red Lego is the fact that someone else wants it. Normal fare for the three and under crowd, but imagine how that scene would have looked if it were two grownups in a supermarket aisle fighting over the last package of seedless grapes. Seems ludicrous? Remember the Tickle Me Elmo shortage? How about Cabbage Patch dolls?
The desire to have what belongs to someone else is one of the basic premises behind the strategies of Madison Avenue. Advertisers know that we are more interested in things that other people want (or have). Children are particularly susceptible to this as they do not understand how marketing works. But we do, right?
What's the big deal?
Judaism calls it coveting, and it's such a big deal that it gets top billing. You can find it referenced right there in the Big Ten, second column, last line.
What's the antidote?
"Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot" (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:1). The Torah teaches us that wealth is a state of mind. Be happy with what you have. Anyone can be rich. Our perception of our needs is a greater factor in determining our happiness than how much stuff we have or the circumstances of our lives. If we think we need what someone else has, we perceive ourselves as lacking, and happiness will allude us. If we recognize that we have EXACTLY what we need, we are rich, in the sense that happiness and satisfaction with our lives are sure to follow.
EXACTLY what we need?
Don't we all need just a little something? A better job? A slimmer waistline? That one red Lego? How do we develop a greater sense of satisfaction with what we have versus focusing on what we perceive ourselves to lack?
Coveting is like saying that God isn't all powerful or all knowing.
One way is to concentrate on the giver. God is the ultimate giver. Every morning when I wake up He gives me my life. He is constantly aware of my needs and knows better than anyone, including myself, what they are. He loves me and only wants what's best for me. Nothing can stop him from carrying out his plan. He is with me my whole life and has a great track record of showering me with kindness. No one else can help me or hurt me as God is the only true power over me. God gives even when I don't deserve it. (Duties of the Heart)
Coveting is like saying that God isn't all powerful or all knowing. Thinking that I'm supposed to have that new car my neighbor just parked in his driveway assumes one of the following:
a. God doesn't know that I need it.
b. God doesn't love me.
c. God doesn't want what's best for me.
d. God isn't able to give me a car like that.
e. God isn't paying attention or isn't around.
f. God is stuck in traffic.
If we find ourselves desiring things that are not in our immediate reach, we can remind ourselves that God doesn't make mistakes. We don't have what we desire because we aren't supposed to. It isn't part of the divine plan, even if it is part of ours. And if our plan for ourselves is out of synch with God's plan for us, we are in for a lot of pain. A life focused on unfulfilled wishes and desires is going to be an unhappy life.
Does that mean we should give up on the unattainable red Lego? If we were meant to have it, wouldn't God gift wrap it and send it to us?
That's not how it works most of the time (lottery tickets notwithstanding). Some things are out of reach so that we'll be motivated to grow. All of the matriarchs were initially barren because God wanted them to pray for children. If we truly need something in order to do our job in this life, God will add it to our bag of tricks at the right time. In the meantime, we get to choose how we deal with the hand we've been dealt.
Once we realize there is purpose in what we have and what we don't have, we can learn to deal with our disappointments in a productive fashion. We can accept our lot and move on or get motivated and change our situation. Either way, recognizing that our life's circumstances are for our benefit will give us the correct attitude towards them and make happiness more attainable. This works even if we don't see or understand how our circumstances are for our ultimate good. It's the attitude that makes the difference.
My kids must have realized that not getting the red Lego was a blessing in disguise. They were easily appeased. Once the object of their desire was out of sight, or more accurately out of the other's possible possession, they returned to their previous activities. My daughter rearranged her dolls and started playing school and my son picked up a new book and began to look through it. I was exhausted. They didn't even seem fazed by what had just happened. If only grownups could move on so quickly when things don't work out as they would have liked.