What happens when we clutch what we can’t keep? Lessons from a 5-year-old.
What does this sentence mean to you? Things matter only as long as they matter.
It’s more than just a play on words—it’s an important life lesson. Here’s an illustration: I attended the birthday party of a 5-year-old boy; let’s call him “Mikey.” This was a lavish outdoor birthday party, with what seemed to be truckloads’ worth of toys to delight a 5-year-old boy. In the center was a kiddie-sized electric car for Mikey to drive around his big backyard. What could be better than that? What could go wrong?
Well … there were other five-year olds at this party. You know what happened next. Each time a child ran towards an attractive toy, Mikey would run, yelling, “No! Mine!” He’d yank the toy from the other child and then turn away to comfort the toy for having needed to be rescued from the clutches of a little marauder. Eventually, Mikey was laden with more rescued toys than he could carry. What to do? He decided to load up all his loot in his electric car and then make his escape. Great idea, right?
But … he couldn’t get all of the toys into the getaway car quickly enough. Every time he added a toy to his car, a child would get yet another toy that Mikey needed to rescue. Then, while he was rescuing the toy, some interloper would try to get into the car! I remember Mikey with one foot in the car, one foot out of the car, his arms wrapped tightly around jumbles of toys, surrounded by children walking off with his treasures—and Mikey crying from the depths of his soul: “NOOOOOOO!”
What’s the most important aspect of that story for me? That fact that it took place over 30 years ago. “Little” Mikey is now closer to 40 than he is to 30. I doubt he remembers that birthday party at all. Certainly, all the plastic, battery-powered junk he was given all those years ago has long since been discarded and forgotten. But for a little while, those things caused a lot of drama in his life.
That’s why I started with asking about the statement, Things matter only as long as they matter. Aren’t we very much like little Mikey? Running after and fighting for things that don’t last and are quickly forgotten? And then we repeat the process—over and over. We’re left exhausted, dissatisfied, and anxious. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Our Lord said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” (Matthew 6:21) We foolish, fallen creatures set our heart on what is not God, and then are surprised and indignant when we come up short. It would be laughable, but some of us never learn the lesson Mikey’s story can teach us, and some of us fly into a murderous rage when that which is not God does not give us what only God can give us. We are natural idolaters with an existential anxiety disorder. What to do?
I’ve worked with young people who are very worried that life will not send them the boyfriend or girlfriend of their dreams. I point out their misplaced priorities. I tell them: “Give Christ every opportunity to be the first satisfaction of your heart. Once you have the real experience of the super-abundant sufficiency of Christ, then you can approach another human person with generosity rather than craving and self-seeking. With Christ as your first love, you will not then ask a person to do for you what only God can do.” Sometimes they listen; sometimes they don’t.
In contrast, I once worked with a monastic nun who related to me a series of stories wherein she suffered great and unjust material losses. When she saw my jaw drop in shock, she smiled and said, “It’s okay, Father—I’m not attached.” She could have peace and joy in the face of loss because she had allowed Christ to do for her what he wishes to do for all of us, namely, be the first satisfaction of our hearts.
Eventually, we will run out of time and enter eternity. That’s true for each of us and all of us. The issue for us in the time we have remaining is the heart we will bring with us into eternity. If we overvalue things that pass and that cannot satisfy, we will have formed a heart that has little room for Christ. And that’s a lousy way to start eternity.
When I write next, I will offer a reflection on aging. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.