McMansions and the Meaning of Life

One Sunday afternoon a few years back, some friends and I attended an open house for a local McMansion in a gated community in Central Kentucky, a 15,000 square foot, $3-million beauty. As an admirer of good architecture, I expected to see a fine home, and it was a specimen. Strangely, though, at the end of the afternoon I left the tour, and my friends, with a poignant sense of gratitude.

The house itself was a treat.  I have not seen as much marble, cherry paneling, and upscale architectural detail in a residence since my last flip-trip through a dog-eared copy of Architectural Digest in my doctor’s office.  The talented use of ceramic tile, walnut hardwood flooring, designer wallpaper, and mega-piece crown molding was enough to make us all dizzy.

As I drifted off alone out into the sprawling backyard, past the super-sized swimming pool and guest house with the teak bar, I was drawn to the sound of water, a pristine creek that ran the length of this 9-acre tract, bounded Walden-like on both banks by lush, verdant woods.  Strolling along the bank, I noticed a couple of young boys, seining for minnows and laughing.  Probably not as financially secure as the family that lived in this mansion, but having a fine time on a Sunday afternoon and enjoying God’s bounty.  And a thought began to grow.

I’m guessing the various family members that lived here had, from time to time, made this same stroll, either together or alone in reflection, and I wondered if their lives had been as joyful as those two boys, playing in the creek, unconcerned with how little they possessed. Without a doubt I respected the earned wealth that had bought all the elaborate materials and expensive artwork in the mansion, as well as the hard work and creative ingenuity that spawned it, and I hoped it had contributed to their happiness.

I could not help myself when the “fantasy” switch in my brain clicked on and I played that game of transference to which most of us never admit, substituting myself for the owners of this fine home, walking this shaded trail.  Then it struck me at that moment like a forgotten anniversary, that all of the expensive artwork, the layers of elegant building materials, and endless pieces of designer furniture that was making all those house-tourists like me back in the McMansion gawk and fawn, would not have made my life any more fulfilling than it was before I came.

True to the spirit of the TV unreality shows I threw off the constraints of rational thinking and played out my fantasy. If I had been the owner of this house, I surely could have hosted endless pool parties, staged elaborate dinner affairs under giant, multi-colored tents, probably even kicked in with a frequent beer blast or two with burgers and dogs.  I could have been party central, Mr. Entertainment, and I know all of my friends would have come, not to mention friends of friends, and their friends as well.  But would they have come to enjoy life with me and listen to me regale them with lame jokes and bawdy limericks…or to see my teak bar and crown molding and to marvel at my cut stone veranda and three family rooms?  Would the party-goers have talked fondly of me when they left or would they speak of my indulgences?  Would their after-party conversations be tainted with jealousy or with love?

Actually, I know my true friends, in my fantasy as in real life, would come to my get-togethers, not because of my wealth, but in spite of it, because they are just that – friends. And I supposed that was the case for the current residents. So it came to me, in that moment, with the creek running wild and clear, and the sunlight glittering through millions of slits in the leafy branches, that despite the excesses and toys wealth can buy, it wouldn’t, by itself, improve my real friendships nor increase their number. And I realized, if that’s the case, why envy it at all.

You may say that I am missing the point, with all those amenities to enjoy for myself, to admire with pride as I throw my chest out and walk through my mansion day after day in my brocade smoking jacket, Chevas Regal in hand, marveling at the sheer talent and dollars it took to produce them all, would be a serious measure of bliss.  But as I strolled in real time back through that mansion that Sunday, observing the expensive furniture, each carefully-selected piece of art, all the elegant materials – seemingly endless excesses of beauty – it made me a little wistful to wonder how much those material things would contribute to my happiness.

And it became clear.  As much as I admire fine things, it’s not the worth of the wood nor the mass of the marble that instills a glow of contentment in me, but the feeling I get when a daughter or grandchild hugs me, or a good friend or an acquaintance at work smiles back, or laughs at a really bad joke, or one of us proffers a thank you for a small gesture.  Happy comes when I create a picture, a paragraph, or a poem, even if it is not good.  Happy comes when I laugh out loud at a funny movie – or cry at a sad one.  Happy comes when I actually touch that part of me, deep inside, that says I am alive.  And Happy comes when I share that with others.  And only then.

So I left the tour, being duly impressed with the grand home and all that went into it’s planning and construction, but also being okay knowing it wasn’t mine.  I was happy to spend time with my friends, to share the day’s adventure with them and hear them laugh and for me to laugh in return.  I was happy when we stopped by the lemonade stand of some friends’ grandchildren on the way out of the neighborhood and dickered with them over why lemonade was a dollar a glass, and a small glass at that, and then shared a smile with them.  And on the way home I was totally fine with it all, when I realized how few pieces of marble it really takes to make me happy.

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