Learning to desire the idea of a thing and not the thing itself

Stewardship season is soon upon those of us who serve in parochial settings. As such I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the proper relationship I should have to my “stuff”.

And given the pile of old furniture that, as the oldest child I’ve been tasked with managing, my family has finally had to break down and rent a storage locker to store that old stuff that we can’t cram into our closets here.

After my trip to Africa and my experience of the lively faith and joyful lives of people who had much less than I could ever imagine getting by with, I’ve noticed that there’s much more tension involved in my relationship with my stuff. As a result I’ve been slowly giving away or disposing of the years of accreted things that I’ve managed somehow unthinkingly to amass.

When I saw this comment posted over on a website called “Minimalist Mac” (how to use as little as possible to accomplish as much as possible) it made recall something from my childhood:

“All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free.

When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources.

This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.”

From here.

When I was a boy our family didn’t have much money. We had enough for everything we needed, but not nearly enough for everything that I was being trained by advertising to want. I knew that there was a dichotomy between the two categories somehow even though I don’t think I’ve been able to name them until recently (post trip to Swaziland).

But I do remember working something out for myself when I was just starting to learn how to read. In those days Sears used to send out a special Christmas catalog to pretty much every house in the U.S. In that catalog was a large, colorful and carefully designed toy section. Every single toy in that book was made to appear to be the height of the toymaker’s art and, judging from the faces of the children pictured playing with them, they were guaranteed to bring joy and happiness into everyday life.

The catalog would arrive in early October (if I recall correctly) so as to help parents start their shopping as early as possible. My family couldn’t afford but one or two of the toys in the pages, but that didn’t stop me from pouring over the pages every day at breakfast. That was the best part of the fall for me. I’d get up, make breakfast, read the comics pages and then get the BOOK of TOYS out and sit at the table studying the pictures and reading the descriptions until it was time to leave for school.

I noticed something doing that. I’d become fixated on one toy or another and much less so in the rest. I’d open the book to the page with my toy-crush on it each morning and gaze rapturously upon it. I’d play with that toy in my imagination. Again and again. And after a week or so of doing that, I’d lose interest that particular toy and my desire would turn to another one in the catalog. The same process would start again. And then again. Lather, rinse, repeat… until Christmas.

On Christmas Day I’d receive one of the toys. It would be great for about 5 minutes. Then, not so much. The actual toy never quite lived up to what it had been in my imagination.

Once I realized that, I learned that I was much better off imagining playing with toys than I was with actually getting them. And, as an added bonus, in my imagination, the toys never broke, never needed batteries and could do things that the descriptions didn’t really cover… Actually receiving the objects of my fixated imagination was a let down.

That’s why this quote above struck me the way it did. It expresses the same principle I had blundered into as a child. I learned to enjoy the catalog of toys much more than the actual toy. What if we could learn that as adults. Don’t see the web pages as things we need to acquire so as to try to fill the holes in our emotional lives – but as things we already have and just need to retrieve if really necessary.

We’d probably enjoy them all them more.

There’d probably many fewer smoke plastic, led illuminated, electronic gadgets in the world overall.

And I don’t see that being a bad thing at all. Think of all the closet space we’d be gaining.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...