How To Fill Your Heart (Without Diamonds)
By Rabbi Justus Baird
Excerpted from a High Holy Day sermon (full text here)
Coco Chanel once quipped, “The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.” One of those expensive second-best things that many of us desire is a diamond. But as recently as the 1940’s, Americans weren’t familiar with engagement rings and did not associate diamonds with romance or marriage. Today, more than 75% of American women wear a diamond ring. So, how did our attitudes toward diamonds shift so radically?
The answer: brilliant marketing.
Two extremely talented women developed a two-prong approach to stimulate demand for diamonds. The first was developed by Frances Gerety who was working late on the DeBeers presentation that was due the next morning. As she headed to bed, she realized that she forgot to create a slogan for the ad campaign. So Gerety scribbled “A diamond is forever.” As a tagline, “a diamond is forever” became so successful and so popular that Advertising Age named it as the slogan of the century.
The second approach was product placement, the specialty of Dorothy Dignam, who practically invented the practice. Dignam’s theory was “the big ones sell the little ones.” She got movie studios to include the word ‘diamond’ in their titles and to include scenes about diamonds in films.
These two women are responsible for the ingrained emotional attachment that all of us have to diamond rings.
When I first encountered this story I began to question what it is exactly that I desire and how I came to desire it. Do I desire the right things? Is the culture around me shaping my desires too much?
One of the great spiritual challenges of our time is cultivating satisfaction, gratitude and joy in the face of a tsunami of messages that we do not have enough. Experts suggest that at a minimum we are confronted by a few hundred marketing messages every single day. We see and hear them on big screens, small screens and phone screens. Experts tell us that social media is becoming one massive envy-trigger.
If the Torah had an advertising slogan for dealing with our instinct to want what someone else has, it would be the tenth commandment. The Hebrew is lo tachmod, which we often translate as do not covet, do not lust after or crave. According to the tenth commandment, “we shall not covet our neighbor’s wife, house, field, slave, animal, or anything else that is our neighbor’s.”
Perhaps we could freshen up the tenth commandment with a new marketing campaign. Today we shall not covet our neighbor’s new kitchen, new car, hand-held device, vacation plans, their smart children, and certainly not their jewelry. Jewish tradition teaches us to love our neighbors, not to love our neighbor’s things.
In birkat hamazon [blessing after meals], we read, v’achalta, v’savata, uverachta – we eat, we are satisfied, we bless. We Jews do the eating very well, and no one can say we haven’t written plenty of blessings to say after we eat. But have we developed sufficient practices and understandings of that middle instruction – how to lisboa’ – savata – be satisfied?
We need spiritual tools to survive the modern onslaught of constant messages to buy more, eat more, desire more. So I offer a practice that has been helpful for me. I learned this practice from Brother David Steindl-Rast, a 90-year old Catholic Benedictine monk who dedicated most of his life to learning and teaching about gratitude and thanksgiving.
Brother Steindl-Rast teaches us to think of our heart as a bowl under a fountain, a vessel for water. As we experience moments in life, our bowl, this vessel of our heart, quietly fills with gratefulness. It fills and fills, and eventually it can overflow – and when the gratefulness overflows, when the water pours over the sides of the vessel of our heart, we experience thanksgiving and joy.
That thanksgiving and joy is noisy – it overflows and splashes on the ground and sparkles – and so we smile wide and we sing and we tell someone how much we appreciate them – our joy is articulated when our heart overflows. In the language of the Psalms, רויה כוסי – my cup runneth over.
But if you’re like me, just at the moment before the cup of our heart overflows with gratefulness, right before we experience joy, we notice an advertisement or a new facebook post. We see our friend with a bigger this or nicer that. We desire more. We enlarge our heart-vessel, which no longer fills up with gratefulness. If it keeps expanding, it will never overflow, and we never experience joy or thanksgiving. All we can feel is that our heart is not yet full. We see how much more we could have instead of relishing, savoring, adoring, and delighting in, everything we already do have.
If you purchase that thing you think you really want, consider investing significant spiritual energy in enjoying it, in cultivating satisfaction with it. Because no matter how beautiful or big or expensive an object of desire we acquire, the very next day we will come across someone who has a better one. That is the exact moment to practice seeing our heart as a vessel of gratefulness that, if we keep it from expanding too much, can fill up and overflow with joy.
Rabbi Justus Baird serves as Dean at Auburn Seminary.