A Homily On Stuff

Store shelves with stuff.

hide captionA lot of the times, store shelves are filled with things I can't imagine anyone wanting.

iStockphoto.com

Sheryl Crow gets to the crux of the matter in her song Soak Up The Sun: “It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

Relatedly, the video The Story of Stuff Project notes that the point of an advertisement is to make you feel bad about what you have.

The notion that material goods don’t bring lasting contentment is hardly some left-wing anti-capitalist rant. The first to leave us with a writings on this perspective were a group of philosophers known as the Stoics, starting with Zeno in the early third century BC and continuing through to the marvelous Marcus Aurelius several centuries later.

In modern usage, to be stoic connotes being repressed and long-suffering, but that was not what the Stoics were after. Rather, the goal is to embrace life’s pleasures, as captured in the title of William Irvine’s recent book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Stoic practice has much in common with the tenets of Buddhism in insisting that one learn to control one’s own negative emotions and appreciate that much of what happens is beyond one’s control and hence calls for acceptance. And they join the Buddha in counseling that happiness entails an avoidance of craving or clinging to… stuff.

Much has been written about our addiction to consumerism and its role as a key driver of our capitalistic system. Headlines of late read “Consumer Spending Falters; Consumer Spending Stagnates,” and the pundits wring their hands. I fully recognize that as long as our economy is based on consumption, including, of course, energy consumption, then to curtail consumption is to inflict hardship on all those servicing the economy by providing “goods.”

While regretting these hardships, I have to confess that I read the headlines with something akin to joy. Perhaps, I think, people will pick up on the ethos of the 1930s, embodied in my grandmother who, although she wound up being quite well-off, only turned on her water heater once a week to take her weekly shower, and in my mother who confessed that she took pleasure in not spending money.

Frugality, which in the case of my mother and grandmother often bled over into flat-out stinginess, isn’t the message of the Stoics, nor of Sheryl Crow’s lyrics. The real challenge is to take joy in what you have and eschew the craving for what you don’t have and probably don’t need given what you already have.

As it happens, and likely because I was raised by said mother and grandmother, a desire for more stuff is not one of my personal vices. But when I have no choice but to go to the mall to replace something that’s worn out, I brace myself for the inevitable heartache –- maybe a more honest word is disgust — as I see all those shelves groaning with stuff that I can’t imagine anyone would want to have, and the lines of folks at the checkout line who’ve filled up their carts with it.

Given the stoic injunction to control my negative emotions, one of my antidotes is to recall a morning when I was on the island of Dominica, a poor country of the Caribbean where most engage in subsistence farming. A young boy had found a ragged piece of plastic and some bedraggled string, and I watched for a long time his delighted efforts, occasionally successful, to get it to fly like a kite.

Would he have traded it for a fancy kite from FAO Schwarz? No doubt. But would the new kite have given him more pleasure?

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