Owned by Ownership; The Need to Simplify

In one of those happy synchronicities, my column at First Things this week appears to play right into the hands of the Patheos Book Club.

Allow me to explain. Over at First Things, I chronicle the existential agida I am experiencing over how my husband’s pack-rat instincts overwhelm my need to throw things away, and the influence of Western prosperity on our sense of material balance and well-being:

Our Christmas was a modest one, by choice, and no one in our family is consumed by a burning need to own the latest in gadgetry, so finding “new” room is no issue. Still, in packing up Christmas, I felt overwhelmed by our inability to parse the seasonal bundles down, and by the sheer volume of our ownership. Discovering a crack in a Christmas lantern, I moved to throw it away, but my husband stopped me, saying, “but it’s pretty; just turn the cracked part around to the wall, next year!”

Anxious to be done and not seeking an argument, I acquiesced; I packed the thing away for next year, but grudgingly. Three days later, it is still nagging at me that something as inconsequential, meaningless, and unnecessary as a Christmas lantern could not be parted with because it was “pretty.”

Theologically, my husband was on solid ground: a thing needn’t be perfect in order to be valued, but then did the lantern’s “prettiness” assign to it a false value which has played him for a sucker? And was that not reflective of our whole society’s willingness to excuse a great many faults in individuals, because they are good-looking, or in institutions because they are powerful?

My questions go forward from there. I wonder about the poverty of our ancestors, and whether the 100-or-so-year adventure of their immigration is panning out as they thought. Did our former poverty make such consumers of us? And how do we detach from it? I end by noting with gratitude that the beginning of Lent is a mere 30-something days away.

And therein meet the twains. Over at the Book Club, they’ve begun talking about Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul; Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit

Huston is an author and Benedictine Oblate (a better one than I) and in reading this excerpt it becomes clear that she’s got something worthwhile to say to those of us who are beginning to feel owned by our ownership, and need to find a way to, yes, simplify. In writing of a move from a “big” house to something smaller and saner for a couple ready to contemplate retirement she shares:

In a house this size, there’s no leftover space for a random junk drawer. Yet we had plenty of them in the old place—crannies stuffed with unrelated items, some of them beginnings: easily tossed but others evocative of life phases weathered and nearly forgotten. What were we to do with these stashes when it was time to move?

My husband’s initial response was to pull his favorite junk drawer from a nightstand we were leaving behind and carry it through the woods to the new house where it sat on the floor beside the bed for several weeks. Though I was sorely tempted to cart it away, I instead decided to wait for Mike to surrender to our new reality; the days of heedless squirreling were over. Everything we carried on into the future had to be essential. Eventually, he accepted this fact. One day, the drawer disappeared.

The great third- and fourth-century flight made by thousands of Christians into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts stemmed in part from a similar impulse: to strip, to cull, and to give away or eliminate anything that might tie one to the past. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were on a quest for purity of heart, and they understood that physical items are never just themselves but rather symbols and reminders of the life we must, however reluctantly, be willing to relinquish if we are ever to change.

This is good stuff, and we often over-comfortable Christians of the West can use it. As her book offers a daily suggestion meant to help de-clutter and simplify, on this day’s reading she suggests tackling a junk drawer:

When we clean out a junk drawer for Lent, we are in some small way dealing with the detritus of breathless hurry and our corresponding inability to focus. We are beginning to tear through the sticky web that binds us to our past: not only to the fine and happy times, the poignant seasons of growth and change, but also to the tears we once shed, the idols we once worshipped, the myths we once believed, and the lies we once told ourselves.

On this first day of Lent, spend some time going through a favorite stash, asking yourself what these items represent. Many of them will no doubt qualify as genuine junk, things that were simply stuck away instead of being carried out to the trash. Others might be useful, except for the fact that they are never used; these are easily bequeathed to someone else. If you come across something you cannot yet bear to part with, don’t struggle with yourself too long. Instead, pack it in a box, label it, and seal it up; then store it in an beginnings: attic or the garage rafters for a few years, remembering that, if you leave it there too long, someone else will have to deal with it. Meanwhile, pray for liberation from these ultimately ephemeral reminders of the past.

I have a cousin who moved to a new location and found that some boxes remained in her basement long after her new digs were fully established. One trash day, she brought a box to the curb, “I didn’t even open it. I figured if I hadn’t needed anything in that box for the last five years, I did not want to open it and talk myself into suddenly ‘needing’ to keep whatever was in there. It seemed healthier to just let it go.”

Over the course of a few months, she eventually got rid of all of her stored up boxes, and now she uses the basement for creative projects.

It does sound healthier, indeed. And with that in mind, I think I will make a point of using Huston’s wise and spiritually grounded book for this upcoming Lent.

Deborah Arca interviews Huston, here

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About Elizabeth Scalia