Last fall my wife and I moved to Juneau after living in the same house in Denver, Colo., for nearly 20 years. We lived in a relatively small place, which led many of our friends to think of us as not very materialistic.
But the fact of the matter is, we have a lot of stuff. The thought of moving it all to Juneau meant we couldn’t avoid how much we had. As we sorted, tossed and decided what to pack, inevitably the questions arose: Where has it all come from? Why do we have so much? What of it do we really need, and why?
This confrontation with our belongings brought to mind one of the late George Carlin’s comedy routines called “A Place for My Stuff.” In it, Carlin parodied the obsession with possessions and suggested that from this perspective, we only know who we are in relation to the things we own. Carlin humorously exaggerated the challenge by describing a vacation trip he took — he had to determine what portion of his stuff he needed to take with him so that he would know who he was while he was away from the rest of his stuff.
Years ago I met a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who traveled regularly to El Salvador as a retreat from the materialism of North American society. He observed that life in the U. S. had become “thingified,” and he found that the people of El Salvador were less consumed by things and more spiritually attuned to what really matters — faith, family, community, love for one another and justice for all. El Salvador is a poor country and the priest’s comment was not intended to romanticize poverty. Many are in desperate need of material security in order to survive and people of goodwill are called to address their needs so that all may have enough to sustain life.
But the priest’s critique of “thingified” existence is still valid even as many in our country and across the globe remain mired in recession and struggle to make ends meet. Whether we have a lot or a little, the consumerist message proclaims that stuff will give us meaning.
Consumerism fuels the inclination to define human worth by the things we have. We are bombarded daily by advertisements promising that this car or that piece of clothing or furniture will make things just right. Ads tell us that jewelry, computers and other gadgets will fulfill us. Earlier this month, Valentine’s Day ads tried to convince us that the way our loved ones will know we love them is to buy them the right gift. But what exposure to such ads often does instead is leave us anxious and empty.
No amount of stuff will fill what is a spiritual need. Things, in and of themselves, rarely make us happy. Trying to fill a spiritual void with material things is a no-win proposition that leaves us craving more and enjoying it less. Religious and ethical teachings from many traditions are united in this understanding. This morning in many Christian congregations, worshipers will hear the gospel portion where Jesus tells his followers, “…do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …But strive first for the kingdom of God…” We all need enough to survive, but many of us don’t need all the stuff we have or want.
Still, resisting consumer culture is not easy, and my confrontation with all the stuff we tossed, sorted and moved last fall is ample testimony to how great the challenge is for me. What about you? Has your life gotten too focused on things, either through what you have, or what you wish you have? Are you possessed by what you possess or by what you long to possess? My hope is that we all can find time for what really matters — faith, family, community, love for one another and justice for all. Now, if I can just find a place for the rest of my stuff.
• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church.
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