We lived in a variety of places. Sometimes we lived in very nice homes while at other times we lived in very humble surroundings. One of the biggest contrasts in our housing occurred during my freshman and sophomore years of high school. When I was about fourteen years old, we lived in a mansion that previously belonged to the owner of the largest local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee. Governors of the state of California previously held large parties and receptions at this estate before we lived there. It was a home that most people can only dream about.
This estate consisted of about five acres nestled in an upscale part of town. The residential section of the estate was situated on about one acre of land in the middle of the property, concealing the house from the busy outside world. Out front, we had stables for our horse and a pasture surrounded by trees on about two acres of land. A long driveway ran up one side of the pasture and then turned into a large circular driveway in front of the mansion.
We had a three-car garage―unheard of in those days―with a wood shop connected to it on the end farthest away from the house. We had the largest swimming pool I had ever seen at a personal residence. The back two acres consisted of a rural setting with a year-round stream running between the oak trees. There were about half a dozen large brick barbecue pits interspersed throughout this natural setting. Surely, most people would think that they had finally arrived and would be happy owning such a nice property.
A year later, we were living in a dilapidated house in the middle of a rundown rural trailer park outside of Redding. The house was not much more than a shack. It consisted of three rooms and had a corrugated tin roof that leaked like a sieve and made the house sound like the inside of a drum when it rained. We hardly had any furniture. We used a Styrofoam cooler to keep our food cold because we did not have a refrigerator. We did not have a television, so our neighbor invited us to his trailer to watch the first man step foot on the moon. My brothers and I slept on the floor next to the little table where we ate. We certainly were poor by anyone’s standards.
Interestingly, I was happier living in this dilapidated house in the middle of a rundown trailer park than I had been a few months earlier living in a mansion on an estate. Our family was closer. We spent more time doing things together and talking with each other. I began to develop a more personal relationship with God and would read the scriptures each morning before the rest of the family arose.
Even though we were in the midst of upheaval, I felt more settled, secure, and peaceful than I had for years. The contrast was so dramatic that even as a teenager, I consciously registered a great life lesson: happiness comes from within and not from an outside source.
This truth was reaffirmed when I served as a missionary among the Quechua-speaking Indians of Ecuador. Most were poor and destitute, yet many seemed to enjoy life.
I will never forget visiting Brother Ruiz in his small, half-built house with walls made out of dried mud with dirt floors and a thatched roof. His wife had died several months earlier, leaving him to provide for and take care of their three young boys, including a baby less than a year old. The six-year-old would care for his younger siblings while his father worked in construction during the day, earning a mere pittance. When Brother Ruiz arrived home at night, he would prepare their dinner and food for the next day, then gather his family around him to eat and play together. He and his children always seemed so full of life and love, even while struggling through this difficult time.
One particular evening when I dropped by to pay them a visit, I discovered that Brother Ruiz had invited a homeless man, even more destitute than himself, to come over for dinner and to stay with his family for a few days while this stranger looked for work. I was amazed. Here was someone who had practically nothing sharing his meager portion with someone even less fortunate than himself.
His great example helped me realize that his family’s happiness was based in gratitude and a willingness to share. This attitude of gratitude is certainly a key to happiness. It is impossible to be happy without feeling gratitude. Sharing not only evidences our gratitude but also adds to it.
If we believe material things are the source of all happiness, we will be sorely disappointed. The pursuit of happiness through materialism is insatiable. We can never acquire enough stuff to fill the emotional black holes that drive us to succeed. There will always be something else we want or something else that is a little better or bigger. We will never be fully satisfied in life until we find the source of truth and love, God.
I find it very instructive that Christ referred to his message as a “well of living water” to a Samaritan woman at a well. Every day for decades, this woman had probably come to this well to draw water in a futile effort to satisfy the demands of the parched earth and human thirst. She could never draw enough water to fully satisfy all the demands for this life-sustaining substance in this dry and barren place. She had to repeatedly return, day after day. No wonder her interest was piqued when Christ told her, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14).
He then instructed her that the only way to really worship God is in truth and through the spirit. As many Christians can testify, once we invite God’s spirit into our souls, it becomes a well of living water, quenching our emotional and spiritual thirst and satisfying our quest for love, meaning, and well-being.
Cars break down, clothes go out of fashion, properties require maintenance, and stocks rise and fall. Satisfaction achieved through material wealth is fleeting at best. If fame and fortune were really the ticket to happiness, rock and movie stars would not be seeking to escape their empty and shallow lives through drugs and alcohol.
Granted, this is a material world we live in, so acquiring the necessities of life is essential to a well-balanced existence. But many individuals fall into the common trap of taking a good or necessary thing too far, allowing it to obstruct their ability to acquire the peace and happiness they actually seek.
Materialism is one of the biggest problems of modern society. As the Bible states, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10). Because material things temporarily satisfy our physical needs, like the water from the Samaritan well, many are lured into the false belief that temporal things will completely satisfy their quest for well-being. But it never lasts. Just as the Samaritan woman had to return to the well every day, material things will never fully satisfy our thirst.
Let us not waste our lives endlessly pursuing things that cannot satisfy and will leave us wanting more. Instead, let us turn to God, who will become a well of living water inside us that will fill our souls with love, perspective, understanding, peace, and satisfaction.