I was surprised to learn that self-storage businesses are among the fastest growing in North America. The first self-storage enterprise popped up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1958. By the end of 2009, a land area equivalent to three times that of Manhattan Island was being used for this purpose in the United States.
This shouldn’t have been surprising. I saw the size of these facilities close up when I was a customer, storing boxes and furniture between selling a house and moving into the condo apartment that would become our home. When we finally reviewed the contents of that unit, I wondered why I’d been unable to part with most of it three years earlier. Clearly, I have a spiritual problem with stuff, and I’m not alone. At its extreme, compulsive hoarding is becoming a problem in our society.
Here’s where monastics have a spiritual advantage. Whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Jain, those entering ordered communal life renounce their worldly possessions in order to devote themselves fully to spiritual work. From that point onward, they don’t have their own stuff to worry about.
While tithing presents one opportunity to let go of possession, we non-monastics have a lot more de-cluttering to do if we are going to make space for spiritual work. And as the Christmas selling machine revs up, our challenge comes into focus.
I’m told that there are twice as many biblical verses that correspond to money as to faith and prayer. Most notably, perhaps, is Matthew’s account of a conversation between Jesus and a rich young ruler (19:16-22). The young man shows up with a longing for eternal life, and Jesus advises him to give his stuff away.
Such guidance is echoed in a 2012 Journal of Economic Psychology report, which found that “higher levels of spirituality correspond to decreased desire to consume material goods in a conspicuous manner.” (Owning a cellphone is given as an example of conspicuous consumption, which leads me to another confession: I once owned two cellphones — one for home and one for work.)
Material things aren’t our problem so much as our relationship to them. Fear, it seems, fuels acquisition: fear of not having enough to live; of losing love; of being seen as “less than” — even fear of losing memories. And these fears are understandable. Those who have been poor know what it’s like to struggle for life’s essentials. Those who have had love withdrawn because they weren’t able to give at a level that met another’s expectations know the sting of rejection. And I know why I find it so difficult to release my hold on old files and papers: I’m afraid that I’ll forget important parts of my life.
But faith is about letting go of fears, increasing our daily confidence that enough has been provided, that our lives are not entirely our own but rather to be lived for the well-being of one another, and that we are loved beyond measure. As Paul told the Athenians, it is in God that “we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said” (Acts 17:28).
If I am to deepen my life in God, I must lighten my load so that I can be liberated to attend to what’s more important. This will include reducing the contents of boxes, closets and files, dealing with whatever fears I have in parting with them, and being careful about what might take their place. My spouse asks a good question when considering a new thing that might go into his closet: “What needs to leave the closet?”
How do you release your hold on things that get in the way of your spiritual health?
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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