I decided to clean and sort through my closets, shelves, and drawers. We are in stay-home mode due to the pandemic and it is spring, so I might as well spruce up the inside of the house. I wiped down surfaces and re-organized my possessions. Some items were donated to a local nonprofit. As I perform this annual task, I realize that many of my possessions go unused or are outdated. I also found things that I did not know I possessed. I started to feel guilty about the amount of my possessions.
This morning, I read an article in the London Financial Times (FT) titled My urge to splurge is over and won’t be returning soon: An artist who once destroyed everything he owned offers insight to our future selves (Pilita Clark, May 2, 2020). The author, like the majority of us, is living at home in Covid captivity. “I miss remarkably little of the life I led before. … The question is, now that people like me have had a taste of frugality, how long will it last once a semblance of normality returns? Will there be a pent-up splurge of excess? Or will we look back and wonder what made so many of us spend what the British ecological economist, Professor Tim Jackson, has called money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about?”
She writes about Michael Landy, a London artist. In 2001, he took everything he owned to Oxford Street, a large London shopping area, and destroyed it as a piece of performing art. “Passport. Love letters. Birth certificate. Paintings from famous artist friends. A Saab car. All of it went, leaving him with a pair of boots and the boiler suit he was standing in at the time.” This destructive act changed him and made him aware of his materialistic lifestyle.
Mr. Landy’s radical act changed others. “First, a lot of the thousands of people who came to gawk at him began to talk unprompted about their own possessions, and how they really only cared about photos, gifts or things they had made themselves. … Second, he says people were unexpectedly kind to him. Strangers bought him clothes. Friends gave him necessities. Ultimately, he was left with a sense that feels familiar in today’s strained times, with their unusual public displays of gratitude to the workers we rely on.”
This week, Texas started lifting the strict pandemic bans. Malls, stores, and restaurants partially opened with restrictions on occupancy and social distance. Reporters photographed people lining up at malls before the doors opened, although many stores are still closed due to the owner’s fears about causing harm to themselves and their customers. I thought about essential versus nonessential needs. Do we really need to buy clothes, or can this wait for a few more months? Do we really need to eat at mall food courts, buy department store cosmetics, or browse bookstores?
My father was a child during the war years. Flour, sugar, and basic food staples were rationed so that our fighting soldiers could eat well. Gasoline was rationed and car parts, such as tires, were limited. He tended his backyard vegetable garden (Victory Garden) and when I was growing up, he continued growing fruits and vegetables in our backyard. Wartime Christmas gifts were few and mainly necessities. People sacrificed for the communal good and there was little money in household budgets for nonessential possessions.
Materialism is so embedded into our daily lives that we don’t fully realize it until we count the TV commercials or have a pandemic that forces us to slow down while the economy crumbles around us. Making our own coffee or bread negatively impacts Starbucks and the local bakery. Having only 5 pairs of shoes versus 40 pairs impacts leather makers and shoe manufacturing. If we decide to change our materialistic lifestyle, our economy will slow down. This is the downside of being less materialistic.
But there are upsides. First, if we are blessed with nonessential material goods, we can give to our needy neighbors. Second, our environment improves when we consume less. Third, dining out spending can be allocated to food distribution centers. We have all seen the long food bank lines. There is real hunger in our nation. Fourth, we can shift our savings from lower materialistic spending towards better medical care in those regions that have poor health care systems. Images of true modern-day saints working as first-responders, health care workers, supply distributors, and health researcher are shown daily in the news. Giving these life critical services our splurge money allows us to be Good Samaritans.
Suffering is part of life, although we work to eliminate it. We have a hard time embracing God’s green pastures if we have never experienced the darkest valley. Psalm 23 tells us to fear no evil when dwelling in the house of the Lord. I hope and pray that we come away from this terrible pandemic with a renewed appreciation for community and a restructuring of our materialistic lifestyles. I long for warm hugs and home cooked meals surrounded by dear friends and family. My photos and Scripture remind me of what money can’t buy. We are called to recognize and grasp these most essential possessions of life.