S. M. Hutchens on the Tenth Commandment
If you have visited the north woods in the summer, perhaps you have met the deerfly, a creature that could make even a disciplined saint have serious second thoughts about the goodness of God. The only good this loathsome insect performs, as far as I can tell, is to serve as an emblem of hemophagous evil. It does not, like the mosquito, subtly insert a slim proboscis into its victim, who often feels the sting only after it has departed. Rather, its method is to land on a part that cannot be quickly defended, there quickly chew a ragged hole in the flesh, and lap up the blood that comes welling out. Its favored landing place is on the top of the head, where, in the case of the deer, the fly is protected by inaccessibility, or on man, by a vantage from which it can easily dodge the slow human hand.
We have now come to the last of the Ten Commandments: You shall not covet, you shall not entertain an unlawful desire for, what belongs to another. You shall not covet house, wife, servants—anything. Covetousness is the deerfly sin. It lands on the place where defenses are weakest, chews a ragged, painful hole, sucks the blood, and persists. It is perhaps the greatest single cause of human unhappiness, not only in those who covet, but also for those whose possessions are coveted, and everyone in the path that lies between them. I have heard it said that there is a God-sized hole in everyone, and that if it is not filled with God, it will be unsuccessfully filled with something else. Whenever we wish to fill that hole with things that don’t belong to us, that is to say, with things we shouldn’t have, we are coveting.
Those who have been in the woods, however, will have learned that there is a simple and sovereign defense against the deerfly: a hat. The fly will find its way through even a good head of hair, but a hat is something the beastie cannot penetrate. It will give up if it can’t find the head.
This commandment is our hat against covetousness for two reasons. For one, it covers the whole head, anticipating everything that we might covet, and for another, it stops the evil before it can gain a foothold by telling us to guard against the attitude that is at the root of a host of evils. Do not covet; be content with what you are given; desire every good thing, but not what pertains to someone else.
There once was a boy who wanted to be a football hero. He was rather clumsy and weighed 130 pounds, but this did not deter him. He manfully practiced, and one game when his team was ahead by fifty points the coach put him in, whereupon he was promptly killed by an opposing left guard named Tiny.
There was once a man who wanted a Turbo-Ram Supercharged, 4-by-4 pickup truck with a twelve-liter engine, off-highway light bar, a B-1 dashboard, and girly mud-flap decorations, more than anything else in the world. A salesman and a loan shark happily obliged him for payments of only $950 per month for the rest of his life. We won’t go into what his wife said and did, but we will say that he was on the whole a happy man until he got tired of the truck, which was about the time the warranty (60 months or 250 miles, whichever came first) expired and the transmission fell out onto the road.
You will recognize these stories as fables. The next two I also made up, but they are more serious, and closer, perhaps, to the world we know.
There was once a man who wanted a doctor’s degree more than anything else in the world. He wanted to be regarded as learned and to be greeted with the title. He worked very hard on it, dragging his wife and children through ten miserable years of poverty and abandonment in graduate school, at the end of which he failed his comprehensive examinations and wasn’t allowed to finish. To soften the blow, he purchased a doctor’s diploma from a company that advertised them in magazines, and always used big words when little ones would do, but never really fooled anyone who knew him. He ended up a bitter and angry man.
There was once a woman who wanted a baby more than anything else. She had not been given one of her own body, nor could she get one by other means. She grew angry at God, who obviously hated her, and every time she saw a woman with a baby she felt sick and angry. How many stupid, slovenly, and irresponsible women were blessed with children while she was barren? Her soul shriveled, and the love she once had to give away ran dry.
While I made up these stories, they are not unlike things that really happen to people who covet. The one that follows is not made up, but has actually happened, with variations on the theme, at least twice that I know of.
There was a woman who loved to sing, and she wanted more than anything else to be an operatic soprano. She was wealthy, and hired some of the best teachers to coach her, but none of them had the decency to tell her she sounded dreadful. She hired excellent accompanists and gave soirees where she expected her friends to bear up for several hours under her caterwauling. None of them ever told her how bad she sounded because they didn’t want to hurt her feelings—she was a lady who took herself and her music very seriously.
Finally she arranged a stage debut, hiring a large hall. The audience, at first shocked by what it was hearing, instead of booing or walking out, found itself so entertained by this screeching matron, clearly oblivious to the quality of her singing, that it began to whistle, cheer, bravo, and urge her on with loud shouts for encores. Bowing and smiling, she obliged, and made herself a fool of legendary proportions, believing with complete assurance that she was exactly what her audience was telling her. Eventually, however, the truth opened upon her like the descent of the gods, and she was broken.
A Life’s Destruction
What I have told you is not meant to discourage those who wish to dream the Impossible Dream, for dreaming makes not only fools, but heroes as well. Which it is depends on the person and the circumstances. (The problem with Don Quixote was that he was insane, and you cannot improve a world already insane by adding yet another insanity to it, except by accident.) What is illustrated here is what desiring things that do not pertain to one’s self—that in fact belong to someone else—can do to a life.
How many marriages and families are destroyed by coveting a woman that cannot morally or lawfully be one’s own? And do not count only the principals to the divorce among its casualties; count the damaged children, whose hearts have been broken, whose minds embittered, and whose souls robbed of the peace and security that children may rightfully expect of their parents.
To covet is to step outside the will of God, a will which shall prevail and to which ours must freely conform if we are to be happy, into a world of illusion, and of wishes that cannot come true. It is to leave one’s self and one’s world for another that does not exist, for an illusion that must perish in the touching, for a draught that vanishes in the drinking and leaves the drinker dry. The command is given to stop the action at the root of desire.
“You shall not covet” is a command to be content, which in an unfallen world would go without saying. Why should one even be interested in not being happy with what we have been given? Why should we want what pertains to another? Should we not view that other, who has what we do not, with pleasure, as a picture of the bounty of God that we have been given the privilege of viewing? And should we not rejoice in what we are, in the givenness of our selves, and strive to become with ever greater glory and intensity what we have been made?
There is something in this resolution that goes against an aspect of modern American culture that now pervades the world. I have heard the illusion taught to our children by their school: You can be anything you want to be—implying also you can have anything you want to have. Nonsense—evil nonsense. It is one thing to strive to be better, to accomplish great things, and quite another to think that there are no boundaries placed before us by God and nature that we cannot desire to pass without sin.
There is something, I believe, to what has been said about the enemies of the United States from wealthy but unprosperous countries—that their hatred, cloaked in religion, arises to a large degree from covetousness. There is also much to be said for the notion that our enemies covet because they have accepted the myth arising from our own variety of covetousness, which holds that happiness lies in acquisition, so that when the strictures of their religion and culture make what they desire impossible to obtain, the next best thing is to punish, in their frustration, the “successful” as infidels.
The price of covetousness, the biting fly of nations or individuals, is paid in blood, from that of Abel to Uriah, to those who perished for the ambitions of Cyrus, Caesar, or Alexander, for the Lebensraum of Germans or Japanese or Americans, to those who died in the fall of the New York towers. It is the teaching of our faith, however, to strive forward in the desire for all good, for ourselves as we labor for others, and to discipline ourselves to contentment whatever state we are in. •
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.