Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

July 31, 2011


Learn to master your stuff or your stuff will master you


          To get the most out of life we must have the right attitude about our stuff, our possessions, things that seem to multiply as we get older.

          Stuff has many names. It may be cheap or expensive. Some may see our stuff as treasure while others see it as trash. Some stuff we describe as knick-knacks or mementoes.

Most of my stuff is small – a rock from Ecuador, a baseball, a plastic rabbit, a wooden cross from Brazil, etc. Though none of it is expensive I still cling to it. Throwing it away is out of the question.

          The problem is that it all requires space. We buy more and more tables and bookshelves to stack things on. And stuff grows. One day you have room on a little table to put your cup of coffee; the next day there is no room. Stuff has taken over.

So the eternal question is this: is there a way to enjoy stuff without letting it possess us? We have to find a way to enjoy life not tend to our stuff. Unless we learn to master things, things will master us.      

Accumulating things is as natural as breathing. Small children jealously guard their toys. At a very young age we become emotionally attached to "our stuff."
As we grow up the pile gets bigger. We want things that appeal to us. And we want the things that other people have, whether it's designer jeans, Air Jordan sneakers, Timberland boots, a Mustang or a Mercedes.  

We spend our lives competing with one another in acquiring possessions. Primitive people in some countries collected skulls only a few years ago. American Indians collected scalps. Some people collect precious art; others expensive antiques. Pet rocks sold like crazy for a spell. People bought them because other folks were buying them.

A friend collects baseball caps. He has 200 of them, but he can wear only one at a time. Another friend has 200 suits and 300 ties. Then to share in a buddy's wedding, he had to rent a tuxedo. Go figure.

My mother collected little spoons. Friends and family members brought her tiny spoons from Rock City, New Orleans and even Europe. She tired of that after accumulating over a hundred, then starting collecting tiny pitchers. I brought her one from Greece and another from Jerusalem.

My wife's sister collected owls, mostly pictures of owls. She had owls everywhere, hanging on the wall in every room. Now that she is dead, I wonder where her owls have gone or if the collection is still growing.  

My wife once collected clowns. She had her own clown suit and enjoyed clowning around to the delight of little children. Later she collected lighthouses. Until she started collecting them, I never knew how many lighthouses are available, many of them replicas of actual lighthouses on the coasts.

On a trip around the world I collected small rocks from 20 different countries including the Holy Land. But in Atlanta my rocks got mixed up by customs agents. At home I had a pile of rocks and no way to tell what country each represented. I threw them in our driveway and rejoiced that I had saved money.     

Had I been able to identify the source of each rock, I would have bought a lighted curio cabinet to showcase them. So I figure I saved three hundred bucks.

Ernest Hemingway had a habit worth imitating. On the first day of every New Year he gave away one of his cherished possessions. He said he did it to prove that his things did not own him but he owned them. 

A wise teacher said, "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." If he was right we should learn to be content with what we have and try to bridle our desire to stockpile more and more stuff.  

One secret may be to collect stuff that does not require shelf space. Some stuff can be stored in your head, your heart, or in a notebook. I gave up collecting rocks. Now I collect maxims, proverbs, or pithy sayings. One favorite is a statement by Winston Churchill. When an editor riled him by changing a sentence Churchill had ended with a preposition, Churchill replied, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Comedian George Carlin was famous for his talk about stuff. He got a laugh when he said your house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. But he was dead wrong when he said that “all you need in life is a little place for your stuff.” Life, real life, has nothing to do with how much stuff one possesses.  Life is a journey, not a warehouse.   

Life is about love and stuff is not worth loving. Get too attached to your stuff and you will miss the meaning of life. It helps me to remember that soon my stuff will belong to someone else anyway. In these sunset years of my life I am having fun discarding a lot of my stuff. I think I am feeling what Hemingway felt once a year. + + +