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The Stuff of (Modern) Life

I hope I am teaching my children to care enough about others—and themselves—to live below their means, to use less than they could, to generously share what they have.

Before returning to school from the holiday break, my 14-year-old daughter decided to do something about this problem. It was time to tackle all that had long been accumulating in her room. Her inspiration was a New Year’s visit to a far-off friend whose bedroom (really her entire house) is neat as a pin, unlike any room in the Zurheide abode. The admired room has everything it needs, including quality furniture and teen-friendly decor. But it is devoid of stuff. What little there is fits comfortably inside drawers and behind doors. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Funny, but I thought my daughter had thoroughly sifted through her bedroom not so many months ago. But this time, she was much more brutal, finally concluding that she was never going to use the catalogs and magazines she had been saving, that she would never again play with certain childhood distractions, and that she wouldn’t need those many school papers after all. Bag after bag of stuff made its way to the trash, making the room (closet too!) look and feel so much better. 
Isn’t it a freeing sensation to lighten one’s load this way? It’s a relief to have less. And yet, this warm feeling doesn’t seem to be enough to keep me from continuing my pattern of accumulation. 
Some, however, are able to remain relatively free of stuff. Remember the simplicity movement, begun a decade or two ago, fueled in part by a wave of corporate downsizing that left hundreds of professionals with the “opportunity” to re-evaluate their material needs? 
I continue to be especially enthralled with the women in such stories who reported success in minimizing their wardrobes. I am going to do that soon—get rid of the apparel I’ve not worn in the last couple years, which is a good two-thirds of my clothing. Of course, most of it is good stuff—and I just might want to wear it again—someday. Especially if I succeed this year in losing that resolved pound-a-month … 
As to my daughter’s clothes, she’s pretty good about going through them regularly and pulling out what no longer fits—at which time I am amazed at the many items that were hardly worn. We pass them on to cousins, neighbors and those in greater need, so at least they continue to benefit someone. We determine to buy less in the future. But as I open my daughter’s dresser drawers today and try to jam in clean shirts and sweaters, I still see many little used items. (Let’s face it: Tops are a temptation, bought on sale for relatively little, always useful to perk up a wardrobe.) 
Of course this is just one small indication that we are a consumer society. And if planned obsolescence wasn’t enough of a problem in the past, the curve of technological advancement continues to sharpen, making yesterday’s hot product tomorrow’s dinosaur. 
My family and I do our part to delay purchase of what’s hot, but often we ultimately give in. My son, for his December birthday, was thrilled to get a new game system. But this experienced materialist cynically wonders how long the system will truly entertain and when it will be replaced by another. (Meanwhile, games cost about $50 each, not to mention accessories.) 
One purchase our family really has enjoyed together is the Jim Carrey version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” As in the original TV cartoon, the Grinch challenges the residents of Whoville about the real meaning of Christmas. Is it about the stuff? The stuff that typically ends up in his garbage? The items received that are unwanted, barely used, if at all? 
This past Christmas, I almost sent relatives notices of gifts given to charities in their names. But I couldn’t quite go there, as no one to whom I’m related has truly reached the point of being a person who has everything. And yet, we all have so much—more than we have time or desire to fully use. 
No doubt each generation of Americans uses more stuff than the last. Collectively our citizens, at less than 5 percent of the world’s population, use 40 percent of the world’s gasoline and way more than our share of other resources. It is estimated that we would need six Earths if all 6 billion living people were to live as Americans. 
In the midst of such facts, I hope I am teaching my children to care enough about others—and themselves—to live below their means, to use less than they could, to generously share what they have.   
May we and our children learn by God’s grace to manage and control our stuff so that it doesn’t control us—and so we actually have room for it, without having to build bigger houses. 
Karen Johnson Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.