You can tell that we are in the throes of the election season when everywhere you go you hear the same question being thrown at us by the politicos and their surrogates. Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
It seems to me this question is grounded in several erroneous presuppositions. First, it begins from the position that someone other than myself is responsible for either my progress or failure to progress over the past few years. It treats me as a ball that has either been kicked into the goal, or out of bounds. Either way, it is the boot that is responsible, not the ball.
If I am better today than I was, I am therefore supposed to appreciate the boot. If not, then I should go looking for a different boot. But in either case, I am not responsible. The truth is, my being better off has much more to do with the choices I have made and the perseverance I have demonstrated than anything some elected boot has done.
The second problem with the question is that it assumes a homogeneous answer among the masses. It suggests that most people will answer in the way that pleases those asking the question. But let’s take a closer look.
Suppose for a moment that two men with the same job, same pay, same station in life, are asked the question. It is possible that they will answer differently based on other criteria in their lives. It is also possible that someone who today is making less money than four years ago still believes she is “better off” simply because now she is doing something she enjoys through which she believes she is making a significant impact in her community. The idea that the question can be answered definitively, the same way, and for the same reasons, by a majority of the population is simply naïve.
And that brings us to the third and most important problem with this question. It presupposes that the only criteria people will use to measure their progress over the past four years is economic. Of course, we’ve all heard that elections are supposed to be about the economy. And certainly the amount of money in our pockets is important. But this also underlies the basic decay of our society, which this question seeks to exploit. The question of whether we are better off now than four years ago presupposes that our economic situation is the only important measurement of our quality of life. It cynically demands that we consider money to be what most makes life worthwhile.
But, as we all find as we mature, meaning is much more important than money. By that I mean, finding real meaning, satisfaction and purpose in life is much more important than simply living to accumulate money and the stuff it provides us.
Someone has said money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does let you look for it in more places. The trouble here is, if you have to go looking for happiness, you probably don’t have a proper definition of it. Happiness, or better yet, a personal sense of well-being, must never be dependent upon money. The stories of multi-millionaires whose lives are horribly sad tell us that. A casual reading of the entertainment pages confirms that many, if not most, of those we so admire for their fame and corresponding wealth lead lives largely devoid of true, long-term happiness.
Despite my disdain for the question about being better now than before, I do think it is a question everyone should answer for themselves and do so honestly. I also believe the criteria must not be purely economic. Think about your relationships, your character, your ethics. Are your relationships with the important people in your life – your family and close friends – stronger, more satisfying now than before? Have you improved in areas of character weakness, and grown in areas that used to cause you trouble? Are you more courageous in your beliefs, more winsome in times of conflict, and more a person of virtue and value? And are you more involved in serving your family and those in your community? Are you finding more satisfaction in seeking significance than success?
Money can’t buy happiness, and money doesn’t make your life better.
The best things in life aren’t things, and the best things are still free. Invest in your soul, and in the lives around you, and then you’ll find that elected officials don’t create happiness. That’s our job as individual, responsible citizens, and that’s what has always been the real strength of America.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.