What is it about stuff and its hold over us?
There should be support groups for mothers of children in disarray. I know I need one. I know because every time I cross the threshold of my daughter’s room I feel a distinct pull in my chest and an overwhelming need to grab a very large garbage bag. My eight year old, like her father, is quite comfortable in chaos and does not share my need for order. All of her things intermingle. They lie randomly or in heaps. Action figures with missing body parts peek out from the bindings of books—missing limbs have a not-so-funny way of showing up…underfoot. There are clothes piled in the bed, under the bed, in corners. Art projects, letters written after light’s out, and shards of construction paper suffocate every surface. Oh look, a petrified piece of bread. Nice. And scariest of all, the closet—dare I even look? Palpitations convert into full-on tachycardia when I notice the permanent markers—of course without caps—leaching color onto a favorite, soft-as-heaven, bamboo (as absorbent as any known material), white (of course) towel. I want to explode. I need order! I must have order! My housemates on the other hand? Not so much. Why the struggle?
I caught a discussion on NPR some weeks ago. The host, Michelle Martin, and her guests, professional women, mothers, were sharing angst over their children’s messy rooms. In describing these rooms, they spoke with palpable frustration and used words like “danger zone” and “hurricane” Like I said, there should be support groups or something. But now finally to my point: What got my attention, apart from commiserating with the ladies on the radio, was a comment from the psychologist on the panel which went something like this: “We are raising our kids with way too many things…way too many choices. We are not teaching them to value the importance of things.” Guilty guilty guilty. It is absolutely true. Just one look at my girl’s room confirms that we too have succumbed to the practice of constant acquisition and indulgence.
Is the disaster in my daughter’s room my fault? Have I given her so many things that she cannot ascribe the value of any one thing from the other? Is this mess in fact my creation?
Is there such a thing as too much abundance? I have struggled with this question for many years. Three times in my adult life I whittled down to practically zero (well, two times on purpose); I removed nearly all things from my possession. I simplified my life by eliminating stuff I truly did not need, which turned out to be most things. I attempted to live by this mantra: My wants will be subject to my needs. I decided to live more consciously and promised myself never to buy more than I need, eat more than I need, or use more than I need. As I look around me, it is clear that I have failed, caved again and again, and in so doing have collected too much…stuff. Stuff that doesn’t serve me or my family. What has made me this way?
There is no refuting the fact that I live in the most materialistic country on the planet. In just a few generations the people of my country have prospered exponentially. We’ve gone from our proverbial rags to riches in a short span of time. Case in point: my grandmother used to spin her own thread and hand-make all of her bedding from old shirtings; I have four sewing machines. Four! While our nation’s prosperity has slowed dramatically of late, the way we use credit is staggering and it shows no sign of deceleration. Despite the protracted sluggish economy, fiscal cliffs, threats of sequestration—we never stop acquiring because regardless of our financial woes, there resides within us the ever-compelling need to have even more. Why is that?
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized I had adopted for myself a poverty mentality. It derived from watching my mother expertly manage finite resources for her family of six. We all knew that the loaf of bread we were fetching for her from the corner store cost 96 cents and we also knew that those remaining four pennies from the one dollar she gave us had better end up in Mom’s “sugar bowl.” My siblings and I learned early that the extraneous things we desired came into our lives through our own effort, which is why we all had jobs by the time we were 12. Once I wanted to buy a sweater that caught my attention in the department store, then Mom gently reminded me that its price equaled half a college credit. Scarcity taught us to appreciate the few things we had. Work taught us to take care of our things. And Mom, the teacher, assigned meaning to every thing.
It is my fault that my children know nothing of austerity. My fault that their needs and wants are indistinguishable. While I cannot exactly compel my five and eight year old go out and get jobs, I have to do something, lest I lose my daughter forever to the pile ‘o junk in her room. The first step in fixing the problem is to acknowledge there is one; the next step is to fill up the donation bag (sans petrified bread)—to pare down our accumulation. Ultimately, I must find some measure of restraint and instill it in my offspring.
Buddhists say that life requires both chaos and order, which to me means that I must learn to co-exist with my mess-makers. Buddhists also say that we pursue happiness because we believe it comes from somewhere outside ourselves. Some of us are so involved in our pursuit, we end up with a life that looks a lot like my daughter’s room: jumbled, confused, bereft of intention and so overloaded with minutiae as to be absurd. Somewhere therein lies my answer, somewhere between scarcity and abundance is the sweet spot. Seeing it means I must keep for myself and my family those things that truly matter and discard every last thing that doesn’t.