The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
“The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth
Earn and spend. We Americans are constantly bombarded with this message: Strive to make more money so that you can acquire more possessions! Happiness, we are taught, comes from displaying our success and our wealth in our homes, vehicles, clothing, and other purchases. For many, shopping has become a pastime and a form of recreation.
People like to think they they own things. But, as Paul Graham points out in his essay “Stuff,” possessions don’t bring just pleasure. In fact, they have a dark side: the things that we accumulate can begin to own us. Things have to be cleaned, maintained, insured, stored, repaired, replaced. I’m sure that you’ve felt, as I have, that you routinely spend whole days (often Saturdays) cleaning stuff, throwing stuff out, going to stores for new stuff, and getting stuff fixed. If you own high-maintenance things like a boat or an RV, your hours of fussing with stuff increase even more. I’ve known people who have become slaves to their possessions, spending so many hours taking care of objects that they have little time left to enjoy those objects.
Even worse, says Graham, an environment that is filled with things absorbs our attention, drains our energy, impairs our ability to think, and exhausts us. “A cluttered room saps one’s spirits,” he says. I found this to be true about 10 years ago when I went through a minimalist phase. I put away or discarded many of my things and kept my home strictly clutter-free. I found that a space free of distractions provided me with calm and peaceful respite from the complexity of my professional and personal obligations.
Graham concludes his essay by offering some strategies for resisting the urge to acquire more stuff. For example, he recommends that, prior to making any purchase, we ask ourselves this question: “Is this going to make my life noticeably better?” The answer will often be no, and the thing should be left on the store shelf.
In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondō insists that de-cluttering actually transforms all aspects of your life for the better. “When you put your house in order,” she writes, “you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should or shouldn’t do.”
I’ve long believed that “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth put it, distracts us from far more important matters, such as communion with nature and our own spiritual development. Similarly, Buddhism’s teachings about the concept of “detachment” have always resonated with me. This is the belief that eliminating our desire for things not only reduces suffering (because if you don’t want anything, you never feel deprived or lacking) but also removes a major obstacle to spiritual enlightenment.
Jesus’ disciples gave up all of their material possessions to follow Him (Luke 5: 11), and Jesus told a rich man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19: 21). In other words, detachment from the things of this world is necessary for a close relationship with God. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “…by living lives of moderation, we have more energy to devote to God’s purposes….”
Admittedly, it’s difficult to resist the persuasive efforts of marketing professionals who brilliantly manufacture and implant new needs and wants in our minds and hearts every day. But resistance is important because it brings sweet freedom: freedom from desire and freedom to focus on more important matters.
As one year ends and another approaches, I always get the urge to purge and organize. This year, I will undertake these tasks as a spiritual exercise. I will release myself from more of the things that hold and drag me down so that I will be lighter and free to move as I grow ever closer to God.