Monday, December 14, 2009

Interrogating My Stuff

This morning’s overarching theme is stuff—the stuff in our lives.

It is also a reflection about the Holidays, Christmas in particular, and the double edged conundrum of giving and getting.

Each year we have new insight into the perils, including the excesses of gifting. This year a Wharton School professor Joel Waldfogel, author, of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays is making the rounds of the talk show circuit. He is arguing that we generally value the gifts received considerably less than what they cost the giver. He says, “On the average gifts generate 20 percent less satisfaction than items we buy for ourselves.” He recommends, unless we know the person very well it’s better to give cash, in the guise of a gift card, that is, if you want your gift to be appraised by the receiver for what you spent on it.

Generally, I’ve observed that we have a love/hate relationship with material things, henceforth referred to simply as stuff, that inhabit our lives. (Stuff’s other name is legion, by the way.) I’m also using the verb inhabit intentionally. Does it seem to you as it does to me that we wake up to an infestation of stuff, like the mice who come into my home every autumn and multiple secretly but leave tell-tale markings in every odd corner and upturned dish. Unless I’m vigilant stuff cyclically but always astonishingly, in its mocking way, gets out of control.

I know that regarding the stuff in my life, it seems I can’t live with it and I can’t live without it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved to pick through, sort, and toss the stuff that accumulates around me. I’ll get a start, but another, more pressing project comes along, and well, you now the results…. Remember my mice analogy. With mice and stuff a thorough rooting out has to take place or the infestation starts anew.

Some years ago, in keeping with the then au current themes of “voluntary simplicity” and “your money or your life” I cobbled together a sermon on Minimalist Living. I used as an illustration a woman of a certain age featured in a Tribune article of the day who lived alone in a fashionable condo downtown and was a consummate minimalist when it came to stuff. For example, she had just a couple a pair of shoes and a few outfits. (That they were interchangeable parts and she had great taste made her rather chic, nonetheless.) What made her unique was her vow, which she kept religiously, to toss an old piece of clothing whenever she acquired a new piece. (That she could live like a Vogue monk probably owed a great deal to her single status, as well as her age. The early years’ urge to acquire and keep ebbs in the third stage of a lifetime the Hindu tradition describes as RETIREMENT.)

Though a minimalist, it seemed clear to me that she was still a materialist. The stuff she possessed and where she lived mattered. She had not attained the ideal of the final traditional Hindu stage of NONATTACHMENT.

Minimalism (voluntary simplicity) is the best we American materialists might reasonably hope to attain.

Thanks to yet another manifestation of the Reality Show genre we have an example of the minimalist’s opposite: the hoarder. The A&E network has a popular show called “Hoarders.” It features persons’ and their beyond clutter habitations who suffer from OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder. (It’s something of a carnival geek show.)This series allows the viewer to peer voyeuristically into houses of squalor and, perhaps self-righteously, realize that their cluttered and /or disorganized houses are by no means as bad as one’s own. Yet there is also the tinge of guilt. Mea culpa we realize when we look around our own abodes.

I recommend that we live somewhere along the spectrum of stuff between the two poles of Minimalism and Hoarding. Now and again it’s worthwhile to examine where we fall on the spectrum and explore our motives,.

I asked Carolyn Healy to read her delightful essay “Interrogating My Stuff” because she offers a sound strategy of three questions to deal with the stuff of our lives: 1) What do I need you for? 2) What do you say about me? And 3) Would I buy you today? Each question has sub questions, and I’m offering a flyer with the details for you to take home.

In accordance with these questions we ask our stuff there are several options. It can be kept out in the open because it has use, it might be stored (in the box called Museum of Things I Can’t Stand to Get Rid of But Don’t Need to See Every Day), or it can be recycled/given away.

Carolyn’s process has practical results—decluttering and with that decluttering a modicum of freedom from the tyranny of materialism in a consumer. (As a measure of said tyranny just keep a log of advertisements/commercials that wash over you in a typical day.)

Carolyn’s process also honors what stuff represents—the practical value for sure, but also the intangible “value added” of meaning. Here, I’ve long loved Antoine de St-Exupery’s adage: “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things.”

The Jean Shepherd story, his memory trip ("The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll") stimulated by the box of gewgaws of his boyhood, teases out how meaning attaches itself to a thing. His box of gewgaws is a very personal Museum of Days Gone By.

So my counsel regarding stuff, beyond being a wise consumer—especially in this Season of gift giving and receiving,—is to thoughtfully measure the meaning of stuff in your life. This approach, measuring the meaning of material things, is pure, unadulterated Unitarianism and connects us with our Puritan roots and a long history of scrupulosity. We UUs are voracious meaning seekers, meaning demanders, and meaning makers.
Make de St -Exupery’s adage an endless mantra and even a constant admonition: “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things.”

This Holiday Season put meaning in what you give; find meaning in what you receive.

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