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ELCA World Hunger

Loving the small stuff

Yadda yadda yadda: after dozens of posts on stuff and how to get rid of it, how to move it crosscountry in a UHaul, how to store it and ignore it, and how to live without it, I’ve unpacked it all, in a new home.

Making my coffee in my little white Melita pot, dressing from a closet instead of a suitcase, settling down to books and papers united, finally, at one desk—my stuff surrounds me again. Now I can create the comforting routines I was longing for towards the end of my 17-month sabbatical road trip.

Perhaps rejoicing in my belongings—seeing them as new all over again—will help me avoid hedonic adaptation. In this phenomenon, says the New York Times in this article on what makes us happy, “people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness. Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.” And that means we stop getting pleasure from that new dress, new house, new car, new whatever. Which makes us go out and buy more new things!

Hedonic adaptation is one reason researchers who study happiness recommend investing in leisure activities and services that build relationships instead of spending money on more stuff. One Illinois expert used his field’s research to buy a house close to hiking trails. The novelty of floor plans and amenities would wear out quickly, he reasoned; the ability to walk four or five days a week would make a longer-lasting contribution to his family’s happiness.

What better reason to get over our foolishly conspicuous consumption and embrace, instead, calculated consumption—buying only what we need and investing everything else in relationships, experiences, learning, giving. If only we could recognize that our material needs were met long ago, and seek new, nonmaterial sources of contentment instead.

Nice idea, isn’t it? And worth contemplating as I put down my backpack and become a householder once more. There are some things I need to buy—a broom, a rug, some weather stripping—but mostly I’m sitting around appreciating what I just unpacked. To quote from Frederic and MaryAnn Brussat’s wonderful book, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life,

How different we might feel about our world after making a practice of saying hello and thank you to the refrigerator that hums while it keeps our food cool, to the slippers that warm our feet on cold winter nights, and to the pen that expends all its ink so that we can express ourselves…when we cherish our things, they reciprocate; when we ignore them, they can turn toxic.

No more ignoring. I’m back to cherishing, and it’s a relief!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

My final post about stuff (I hope)

When I decided to sell my home last winter, my stuff stopped being the pleasant backdrop to daily life and started demanding my attention. Beloved possessions became objects to sort, discard, bequeath, measure, and pack. Adding up self-storage fees, UHaul truck rental, and 8 miles per gallon of gas for 2300 miles, it cost quite a lot to move the five pieces of furniture and 67 boxes that survived this process of discernment from a dark self-storage unit in Chicago to a dark farm shed in Washington State.

From my extreme downsizing, I’ve learned exactly how much I have, and what it costs me. It’s left me with a sense that most of us North Americans have too much, and spend too much energy acquiring, caring for, and storing those things.

The doilies and antimacassars that cluttered our grandmothers’ homes have given way to gadgets, home electronics, and more contemporary gewgaws we think we can’t live without. Our garages are so stuffed with furniture, toys, sports equipment, and yard tools that cars can’t live in them anymore. We hold yard sales, but they don’t make a dent in our belongings because we fill our spaces with new bargains.

We do need tools for living, like the butter churn in the South Dakota sod house I visited on my road trip, or the laptop I’m typing on. And we cherish heirlooms that embody our family stories. But are there other, more creative and beneficial ways we could spend our energy than buying, selling, and tending stuff?

As a culture, we could produce less. According to the American Society of Interior Designers, 90 percent of everything manufactured in the U.S. ends up in a landfill in a year. No wonder Jared Diamond says much of American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to the quality of life.

As citizens and Christians (not consumers!), we could purchase more selectively, and free up space in our homes for hospitality to others or rest for ourselves.

We could have less individually, and share more things in common—a skill learned by young participants in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps and similar service projects.

And we could invest more energy in partnering with people in places that don’t have enough, so that together we can create a world in which we don’t suffer from too much and others don’t suffer from too little.

I’m looking forward to spending my energy on something besides my stuff. With everything in the shed, it’s just me and my suitcase. What will I learn next?

Anne Basye