Every December my father would read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens out loud.I would shiver in my candy-striped flannel nightgown thinking about the miserly and money-hungry Mr. Scrooge. These readings produced an indelible image in my mind of what greed looks like. Greed is the ponderous chain that the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late business partner, is forced to drag through eternity. Marley's ghost visits Scrooge and explains how this was the chain he forged in life from "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." The ghost begs Scrooge to change his greedy ways before it's too late and he is doomed to a similar fate. Dickens knew that greed is one of the seven deadly sins, punishable by eternal damnation. This sin has been called avarice, covetousness or greed, but the root meaning is always the same; it is a desire to possess more of something than you have need or use for.
All spiritual traditions warn against greed. Jesus said, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions," and Buddha said, "There is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed." But surely they were warning businessmen who live to amass wealth, or dictators who hunger for power. I like to think of myself as a reasonably altruistic person; I don't need to worry about being boiled alive in the vats of hell because I am the CEO of a corporation who bilked shareholders out of billions of dollars, right? But even though I may not be the greed poster girl, there is something that I desire to possess more of than I need. Something that the mere sight of makes my pulse quicken, my palms itch, and my eyes dart furtively.
It started innocently enough in the small Alaskan town where I grew up. In summer my mother would take me to the Salvation Army church where the good ladies of the congregation held rummage sales and sold salmon salad sandwiches for fifty cents apiece. The smell of those sandwiches would mingle with the nose-tickling tang of moth-eaten old wool as we sifted through the town's cast-offs. It was here that I felt the first stirrings of greed as I ran around looking for pretty items to fill my dress-up trunk. I liked filmy pastel negligees, glittering costume jewelry and floppy-brimmed straw hats with gaudy plastic flowers. But when my trunk was full, I still wanted to shop. I wanted more prom dresses, rhinestone necklaces and strappy sandals than I needed. Much more.
My desire for used and vintage clothing and accessories has grown each year since childhood. Now, when I travel to a new city, I waste no time plotting all of the thrift and vintage stores out on a map, before I even think about museums or landmarks. For example, on a recent trip to North Dakota to attend my grandmother's funeral, I was forced to purchase three suitcases to bring my thrift store bounty home. Other symptoms manifest themselves in daily life: when I'm hiking, I picture a thrift store full of vintage clothing on top of the mountain to help me climb, I am plagued by recurring dreams about discovering secret rooms in my house full of vintage clothing, and I've been known to befriend older ladies with boxes in their attics.
Greed is one of the seven Deadly, or Capital, sins because it's a gateway drug to other sins: lust often leads to adultery, theft stems from greed. I have a similarly afflicted friend whose weakness is going to estate sales. She told me the story of the epiphanic moment when she realized her greed had gone too far. She caught herself going to a sale on the first day and filling an old suitcase with the items she coveted, and then hiding it under a couch. She came back to retrieve the suitcase on the third day of the sale and purchased the contents of her hidden suitcase for half-price. I knew my own greed was getting out of hand when I spent all of my lunch breaks shopping at a downtown San Francisco Goodwill store instead of eating. I established a flirtatious relationship with one counterperson who, if I batted my eyelashes, would let me slip extra items into my shopping bag for free. It was because of these lunchtime shopping sprees that I had my moment of truth.
I came home one day with six nearly identical 1960's sleeveless floral mini-dresses with labels that said Arnelle of California, San Francisco. I spread them out on my bed in a glorious profusion of pink tulips, yellow daisies and bright oranges and purples. Then the realization hit me: I will never wear these. For one thing, I prefer fuller 1950's styles to mini-skirts, and for another, I don't love my upper arms enough to bare them to the world. Some cute little waif would have loved to wear these dresses, but here they are, all six of them in my house, never to be worn. I just wanted to gaze at their bright colors, touch them, possess them.
But wait a minute. So I have too many dresses, that doesn't make me Ken Lay. But I wonder: would Buddha make a distinction between the torrent of greed for custom yachts and the torrential desire for enameled costume jewelry? Both of them cause you to place too much value on material possessions. If your joy is too wrapped up in amassing things, other aspects of your life suffer. I don't believe that deriving pleasure from possessions is always wrong, but when you let the desire for possessions consume you it can choke out your spiritual growth and harm your personal relationships. My friends say that I become a different person when I enter the doors of a thrift store. Sometimes I force them to wait for hours as I meticulously sort through every item, trying to get to the treasures before the competition does. The only difference between Scrooge and me is that the ghostly chain I'm forging is made out of dresses, not cash boxes. I'm dragging a phantom chain made from 1950's prom dresses in buttery yellows, blushing pinks and ice princess blues, embroidered cotton gloves, and sparkly rhinestone tiaras. So what can a greedy girl do to atone for her sins and unmake the chain before it's too late?
After being visited by the ghosts of his past, present and future, Scrooge has a serious change of heart. As a child, I couldn't wait to get to the happy ending. Scrooge learns that the only way to be rid of the chain of greed he forged is to practice the corresponding virtues ñ charity and generosity. He doesnít stop making money ñ he starts spreading it around to those less fortunate than he. So maybe I need to start giving some of these clothes away and curbing the frequency of my shopping sprees. Who knows, I might even derive more pleasure from finding the perfect outfit for someone else than possessing the wrong outfit for myself. So all you mod girls out there, I've got the perfect 1960's floral A-line mini-dress waiting for you in my attic. Come and get Twiggy with it!
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