Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The fable of the million dollar chair

Long before he got to the famous finger-of-God-touching-Adam part, Michelangelo painted a scene of the great flood on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The scene is cluttered and full of figures because it was one of the first that Michelangelo painted. As he went along, his scenes got less and less complicated until he arrived at the last one – God separating the light from the dark – which he painted in only one day. (If you’ve read my blog for a while, you may see a similar pattern here. Looking back at my first posts I think, “Sheesh, get an editor already.” By the time I’ve been blogging for a year I’ll be writing: “I have kids. Art is cool.”)

Meanwhile back at the flood. I’ve always thought it odd that the story is supposedly about Noah, but in Michelangelo’s fresco, Noah is a very minor character and the furthest detail away from our viewpoint. His tiny upper body is barely visible (and would never have been visible from 60 feet below) hanging out of a window in the ark waving goodbye. So what is the fresco about if it isn’t Noah? See all those naked people doomed to drown – the poor suckers who literally “missed the boat?” I think the painting is really about them.

Genesis describes the people left behind as wicked sinners whose every thought was “only evil continually.” But in Michelangelo’s fresco, they don’t look all that bad. In fact they seem rather compassionate – some are even reaching out to help each other out of the water. The only clue to their corruption lies in the fact that in the midst of the catastrophe, they care so much about their possessions that they cart them along on their backs. “The flood is rising and we are about to die an ignominious watery death, but dude, don’t forget the kitchen table.”

Learning the perils of materialism the hard (and fatal) way, Noah’s flood-ees never got to benefit from lessons learned. I, on the other hand, am finally coming to my senses after a few hard (and thankfully not fatal) lessons of my own. The most significant has been that of the million dollar chair.

Ken and I searched for many months for the perfect chair. One fateful day we stepped into a store that we had no business stepping into. This was a store for the rich and famous – of which we are neither. Lured by the smell of imported leather, carved mahogany and complimentary chocolate chip cookies, we fell under the spell of the merchandise and our own sense of entitlement. By the time we came to our senses, we had ordered a custom-made chair to end all chairs. And while it didn’t exactly cost a million dollars, it would take us a year to pay off the bill.

For 8 weeks, while we waited for the chair elves to make our chair I tried to blot out the price tag and envision instead how my life would be altered by this new purchase. Our living room and our lives would finally be complete. I would cuddle more with my children in this chair. I would read the scriptures and countless self-help books in its overstuffed cushions. I would sit and think in the glow of the evening and solve the mysteries of the universe.

The chair arrived. It was huge. HUGE I say. It dwarfed the other furniture in our living room and looked out of place amid the casual yet frumpy theme we had going. Like a snob at the barbeque, the million dollar chair turned up its velvety nose(s) at our bargain sofa, laminate bookshelves, and scratched piano. We hardly dared sit on it for days.

Time has passed. The bill has been paid. The chair has been sat upon, lounged upon, bounced upon and spit-up upon. And the cushions have flattened just enough so that the first thing I think when I walk into the room is no longer, “Holy Crap that’s a big chair.” Most importantly, I have realized from the experience that my life was in no way improved by the purchase. Sure it’s a comfy chair, but it’s just a chair. And not worth the price we paid in money or emotional anguish.

There’s a spot in the Old Testament where the Children of Israel are being chastised for worshiping idols. The rebuke points out that they have lavished gold and silver and paid a goldsmith to make a god which just sits there and does nothing. In fact, not only does their idol fail to deliver them from captivity, ironically it becomes yet another burden: “They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth” (Isaiah 46:7). That’s the deal with materialism. I thought the chair was going to carry us and instead we wound up carrying it.

So my new rule to help me measure the true value of something is the “Noah rule”. In the event of a flood, what would I be willing to carry on my back as I scramble to higher ground? The answer is obvious. Save the baby. Leave the chair behind.


Julie said...

Let me just be the first to say, “Yeah, right, your posts are getting shorter. Ha!”

Radioactive Jam said...

Yet with proper modifications - addition of inflatable "bladders" and some (large) CO2 cartridges - that chair could save your family in the event of a flood. Possibly several families.

A lesson well stated, though. And I like how you used the wide-angle to make the baby look so small relative to the chair.

Cause the chair's apparent ginormousness, that's just a perspective trick, right?

Kimberly said...

Thought provoking stuff...having once worked at a furniture store for years and collected a few pieces of respectable looking furniture (but for 1/2 price! it doesn't matter how much it costs if it's half price!), I wonder what I'd be wanting to carry on my back. Don't know if I'll ever look at my dining room table in quite the same way ever again.

Ruth said...

I enjoy stopping by for such insightful posts. Love the picture of the baby on the chair.

scribbit said...

You'd think if they were interested in taking their things with them (in the painting) someone would have said, "Hey, maybe we should bring some clothes?" Bring the chair but forget the pants.

Great post.

The Lazy Organizer said...

Yes, I was wondering if the rain washed all their clothes off.

We have a giant chair like that too and we all fight over it. Even though we could all sit in it at the same time. We fight over who gets to lay in it.

edj said...

When we had one child, we decided to save all our money and go to Europe before he was two, so that he could travel on our laps and not need his own ticket.
When he was 13 months old, we found out we were preg with twins! We said, "We're not going anywhere for 20 years" so we took the money and bought a big chair.
It, too, stood out from our other furniture. It, too, was huge--big enough for us all. But it was perfect.
I could sit in it and nurse two babies at once. I could cuddle all 3 kids. We ALL love it and argue over who gets to sit there. And it's the only piece of furniture we bothered to bring all the way to Africa!
So while I agree with your point, I think you should enjoy the big chair--unless os course there's a giant flood.