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Everyday Theology

By Louise McEwan

 

Our ongoing battle with 'stuff'

03/11/2015
Nearly 20 years ago I declared a war on stuff. I was helping to clean out the house of a favourite relative who had died, and there were moments when the sheer volume of stuff threatened to overwhelm us. Everything had to go, right down to the last nail in the shed. It was at that time that I vowed not to accumulate too much stuff.

We had an easy enough time deciding what should happen with the best stuff — it went to family members. It was also fairly easy to get rid of stuff that was in good, useable condition — it went to charities. Some stuff was destined for the dumpster we had rented. Items in the personal archive category — greeting cards, photographs, report cards and academic certificates — were more problematic and eventually we shredded the majority of it. The last goodbye to the stuff of a lifetime took place when we sold the house.

This was for me a sobering experience, and while I had the best intentions of honouring my vow, I immediately began accumulating more stuff when I inherited a breakfront full of beautiful hand-painted china. Nevertheless, in an effort to keep my vow, I have an annual war with my stuff.

The first skirmish in my annual war on stuff begins in the closet where seldom-worn clothes create a clutter. The first causalities of this year’s campaign were a couple of pairs of jeans and some sweaters. From there the battle moved to the hall closet where I ambushed an unsuspecting winter jacket, taking it captive for the Sally Ann, and mercilessly fired a comfy but worn-out pair of slippers into the trash.

I have to psyche myself up for the next offensive, which will be messier and more drawn out than the skirmish in the closet. It will consume hours and spread out from one room to another. It will take me down the path of nostalgia and potential causalities will cry out for mercy. This battle will be against our personal archives. This is the kind of stuff that George Carlin in his hilarious monologue on stuff referred to when he said that when someone steals your stuff, “they don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth-grade arithmetic papers.”

I have done combat with those metaphorical fourth-grade arithmetic papers more than once. I can more easily part with a piece of antique furniture than a scrap of paper on which a child printed, “I love you mom.” Over the years I have whittled the stuff of our family archives down to something manageable, and I hope, meaningful to my kids.

The toughest offensive of all has nothing to do with getting rid of the stuff that we can see and touch. It is the endless battle against the clutter in our heads, the letting go of the opinions, judgments, prejudices and resentments. This is an area where I am discovering the benefits of mindfulness practices typically associated with Buddhism.

Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century Christian mystic, had some things to say about the benefits of letting go of both the material stuff and the head stuff. He advised, “depart from things” and strip “yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you will find true peace and nowhere else.”

I have no illusions about my war on stuff. I expect it to take a lifetime and when the time comes for my kids to sort through my stuff, they will probably wonder why I kept some of it. There will be stuff I collected that no one wants, and there will be stuff I should have tossed onto the rubbish heap long ago. In terms of the head stuff, while I have no illusions about attaining perfection or becoming perfectly peaceful, I look forward to the possibility.

The experience of sorting through the stuff of someone’s life over two decades ago made a deep impression on me. It drove home the truth that “you can’t take it with you,” or, to put it another way, “there’s no U-Haul behind the hearse.” At the end of the day, every last nail has to go.

Trail, B.C., resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer, religion columnist and catechist. She has degrees in English and theology and is a former teacher. She blogs at www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca. Reach her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com