One of my earliest musical memories is of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross,” and in particular the lines:
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
‘Til my trophies at last I lay down.
At the time, what came to mind for the word “trophies” centered on the large, gaudy assemblages stored in glass cases outside of the gymnasium at our local, small-town public school. We were not an athletic family that followed suspenseful games or nail-biting championships, but it was obvious that these tall wood and metal creations with their engraved plates and gold-plated figurines of basketball players (eternally poised for the big shot) were terribly important to local fans, an important way of commemorating and recalling past glories.
On some level, I dimly grasped the tribal instincts behind this display, the pride of place it all represented. Yet even as a small child I thought it strange that so much time, material, and effort had been expended making and storing these large and even larger artifacts which to me appeared to do little but collect dust.
Our clan was more inclined to competitions like spelling bees, and I recall my older brother bringing home a small trophy honoring his skill at spelling, his name engraved on a brassy plate with the notation of his first-place win. It was, to be honest, a bit of a puzzlement to me that anyone would call attention to spelling as something you could “win” at, given how naturally it came to us. But I suppose it represented a certain parity of recognition for those of more bookish inclinations.
The Trophy Life
As I got older, the meaning of “trophies” that the hymn referred to began to expand for me, as I learned terms like “status symbol” and ”trophy wife.” And it started to dawn on me that the word could refer to anything showy or simply precious to the owner, from a home to a boat to a title or position.
“He who dies with the most toys wins” was a bumper sticker I first recall seeing in the 80s, and its inherent irony and falseness was obvious even as it tried to mask a shallow summing-up of life with materialistic bravado. (Observing the then-50-something members of my parents’ Depression-era farm-kids generation take to hobbies like porcelain-doll collecting and die-cast toy farm equipment restoration, I thought the bumper sticker “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood” far more apt.)
I do believe that the free market, with all its flaws, is the best system devised by humans for creating material prosperity, but of course mere wealth becomes a sort of all-consuming monster of its own when unchecked by spiritual impulses. Books have been written about greed, political philosophies developed around the subject, but every attempt to define what is absurdly “too much” for others but justifiably “enough” for the righteous revolutionaries has caused untold conflict and bloodshed—and always will, I suspect.
However, going deeply into economics or political theories is beyond the scope of our current discussion. What interests me is the price we as members of free societies are willing to pay for “trophies” that ultimately don’t mean very much.
Crushing the Joneses
One of the hallmarks of developed free-market economies is the creation and availability of provisions that go beyond the strictly practical. As a society’s economy advances and moves past the subsistence stage of providing basics like food, clothing, and shelter, it begins to develop markets in goods and services that are not strictly essential for life—things that add comfort, or beauty, or even amusement to our existence.
What our great-grandparents once perceived as unimaginable luxury—a simple tube over the kitchen sink that could emit water by twisting a handle—gave way to our grandparents expecting two simple handles on a faucet that could dispense cold and hot water. By the time my parents came along, a household of faucets in styles and finishes they had selected was the norm, and now we can buy water dispensers that turn on a silky aerated flow at the perfect temperature when we simply move our hands under them.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of an economic system that rewards ingenuity, originality, hard work, and the fulfillment of human needs and desires. Technologist-philosopher George Gilder has referred to “the moral core of capitalism” as the “essential altruism of enterprise,” rewarding creators of goods and services in voluntary exchanges that meet “unknown, unexpressed, or even unconscious need in a surprising way.”
But the eternal toil and worry to not only “keep up with the Joneses” but crush the Joneses by acquiring and displaying trophies of achievement is not only unbiblical but corrosive to the human spirit. (I see that financial guru Dave Ramsey is now credited as saying, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” I think I first saw it in a collectible old home magazine from the early 1960s, and it captures something essential and timeless about human nature.)
The burden of stuff
Many of us in advanced economies are now living in a state where consumption has become a burden, leaving us not only bewildered by our nearly unlimited choices but exhausted from the chore of assessing, acquiring, maintaining, protecting, insuring, and finally disposing of all our stuff. In fact, nearly 9% of Americans now rent 58,000 self-storage units to hold things they don’t have room for at home, generating $22 billion in annual revenue for an industry that employs 172,000 people just to get excess belongings out of their customers’ daily life. Those crypts of material acquisition are filled with trophies—actual and metaphorical—that their owners may never lay eyes on again. And while some heirs may have the energy and fortitude to go through their late elders’ cache of excess, others will consider it an unbearable chore and abandon it to strangers to be scattered to the wind.
I see no evidence that everyone who gains prominence in their field or financial success in their career has compromised their ethics or sacrificed things of lasting worth. But, like you, I have observed enough of life to see how often a compulsion to lay up treasures on earth—even the prize of approval and admiration for our good works or generosity—can take a toll on health, peace of mind, and family integrity.
I’ve never been much of a collector; There are some lovely natural collectibles, like seashells, or skillfully man-made ones, like antique watches or classic cars, that I’m more than content to see in someone else’s house, or a museum. And yet as a middle-class home-owning American with over five decades on my odometer, I have acquired stuff that is not necessary for daily life but hard to part with, such as books, photo albums, and several heavy boxes of LPs (aka “vinyls” to Millennial readers). Each has some connection to my past, recalling youthful tastes, moments of progress, familial affection.
But when “the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,” my own precious belongings will be as worthless as the championship trophies in the high school’s display case, the “priceless” works in a thousand art galleries, or the unknown treasures squirreled away in America’s 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space.
The thriving industry in corporate awards is built around the premise that recognition by management, or one’s peers, promotes a more motivated and loyal workforce—ultimately returning more in productivity than it costs in dollars.
The single trophy of my corporate career that stands out is one I received as part of a team that executed a technical “rollout” to the sales force—a project that I do not recall as particularly complicated or taxing, yet apparently judged to be a special achievement all around. The project leader organized a little ceremony that involved an executive presenting trophies to the team members and saying nice things. Personally, I have always appreciated spontaneous, private, one-on-one words of thanks from colleagues much more than any award conferred by a VIP, but as a loyal corporate soldier I went through the motions, smiled for the pictures, and ate a piece of the celebratory cake.
Returning to my cubicle, I separated the two parts of the quality slipcover trophy box with its form-fitting closed-cell-foam insert in which the heavy, costly trophy with its smooth, richly finished wooden base and prismatic crystal obelisk rested. It was then that I noticed the remarkable, poetic encapsulation of everything I already felt about the value of such awards: My first name, engraved on a brushed-metal plate, had somehow been rendered as “Rom.” Yes, Rom Seibold + Big Project Name/Year! Even after throwing the trophy away years later, I pried off and kept the plate as a humorous reminder of the indifference of perfunctory, assembly-line recognition, and how little any such baubles ultimately matter.
For believers and nonbelievers alike, the day is coming when we will all lay our trophies down. To paraphrase the hymn slightly: Then he’ll call us someday, to our home far away, where his glory forever we’ll share!