Ancient wisdom teaches that the key to happiness is the abandonment of all desires. Unfortunately, if enough Americans embraced that philosophy the economy would collapse.
Our blessed prosperity, we're told, is based on consumption. Since most of us have the basics, the desire for superfluities must be stoked to keep the great GNP machine purring.
This notion may make those born within shouting distance of the Great Depression uneasy. Some still hear their parents whispering warnings about the dangers of dipping into capital, of spending more than you make, of destroying your soul by riotous living.
Moreover, the yearning for material possessions begins to fade at a certain age. Grownups, when asked what they want for Christmas, are as likely to request "a little love" as a cordless drill or a Cuisinart.
But fortunately for the health of our economy, the young suffer no such fears, no such debilities of desire. Last year, when my wife asked our 5-year-old grandson to dictate a letter to Santa, he poured forth a Niagara of urgent demands. She had to scribble furiously to keep up.
"Dear Santa: My name is Alex. One caboose and three rectangle cars and four wagons and two coaches and one Red Star train and one white And I want a Thomas the Tank engine with not a grey thing and not a white thing. (My dog ate the wheel of my Thomas the Train. Can you get a new one for me please, Santa. Thank you.)
And I want an airport and a space shuttle Lego with batteries and two airplanes. Thanks for the airport. Santa will come. I'm very happy. I love Santa and I want something else. What next? I want a tank with a gun and lots of wheels on it. Another train with a white track. No clothes, just toys."
Not that Alex was thinking only of himself. He took time out to consider the opposite sex.
"And I don't want girls to get presents," he said. "No presents for girls. And no Christmas trees for girls." That matter taken care of, he returned to the business at hand.
"I want a blue light laser sword. A Motor X gift box with two helicopters and a truck with Army guys and a water tower with glass so I can see the water. Oh yes and don't forget: The Hot Wheels Tornado Twister, the big ship with two missiles, a claw man, an army walkie talkie, the Lego Millenium Falcon, the soccer game Lego"
On and on he went. But isn't there more to life than toys and instant gratification? After the orgy of Xmas died down, I decided to teach Alex an important lesson. I took him to the bank and asked for my safe deposit box. In the privacy of the booth I opened it and produced a gold coin.
"Alex," I said. "My father gave me this gold coin and now I'm going to give it to you. But you must understand that it's for keeping, not for spending. Save it for a rainy day."
Alex's eyes shone brightly. But he didn't seem to have absorbed my lesson about saving.
"Thank you, granddad, thank you, thank you," he cried as he tried to snatch the coin from my hand. "Let's take it to the toy store and spend it now."
"No," I admonished. "This money is different from the money you take out of my pants' pockets. Save it and some day when you really need it, it will be there. There's a saying: A fool and his money are soon parted. Waste not, want not. Remember, money doesn't grow on trees."
Alex wasn't listening. He was thinking of all the things he could buy with that coin. He seemed dumbfounded by my lecture. Perhaps he suspected a ruse along the lines of "Spinach is good for you."
"Granddad, you and I are going to have to have a talk," he said in the parental tone he's mastered. "You're hurting my feelings. This isn't fair. You gave me the coin, now it's mine and I want to spend it."
What could I say? Given the realities of the New Economy, Alex's point of view may be wiser than mine, closer to the essence of contemporary Christmas. I remembered that when my daughter's chemistry teacher saw her attention wandering in class, he moved his hand in front of her eyes and said, "Gill, where are you?" Snapped out of her reverie, she said, "I was at Nordstrum's."
Of course chemistry is important. But the economic imperative makes it a kind of duty for teenage girls to dream about shopping. Nordstrum's was my daughter's post, like Horatio at the bridge. In this perspective, Alex and my daughter appear to be American heroes, and my archaic moralizing sounds like the Grinch.
At this very moment, the economy is slipping into recession because too many selfish Americans are starting to watch their nickels and dimes. If we stop spending, we may be plunged into a Dark Age without Call Waiting, Instant Messaging, 600 channels, without even electricity perhaps, living like hunters and gatherers, dressed in animals' skins.
The Cold War may be over, but the communists are lying in wait, plotting a return at the first sign of weakness in capitalism. If you don't want a tragedy on your hands, be a patriot. Get out there this instantand spend. Who knows? With the miracles of genetic engineering, money may one day really grow on trees.
George Gurley is a Lawrence resident and writes a regular column for the Journal-World.