I grew up on a small farm in rural Suffolk. There were 5 of us children and my father was a farm laborer so the resources were very limited.
Recently I’ve begun to relive my childhood by relating the most vivid details to my 4 year old son as part of our bedtime rituals. He often asks me to tell him stories of what it was like living on a farm with a large family. It’s a million miles from our present lives here in London.
As I have revisited my childhood one of the things that has struck me is just how unimportant ‘stuff’ was.
At Christmas we would have a ‘main present’ and a stocking filled with trinkets, an orange and some nuts. We certainly got over-excited about the presents but Christmas was much more about the family gatherings and all the fun and games. Looking back at my childhood, I can recall the trees climbed, dens constructed and birds nests found with much greater clarity than almost any of the presents I received.
I also realized as I dug back into my memories just how uncluttered the house was. Toys would all fit quite easily in the cupboard under the stairs and we simply used things until they fell to pieces. In fact it makes me smile to see some of the same plastic bowls still being used by my mother that we enjoyed as children. We had no waste collection so we were forced to reuse and recycle as much as possible
Being obliged to revisit my childhood has had one unforeseen consequence: it’s highlighted just how materialistic I’ve become since those early days. I’ve always felt that I’ve prioritised relationships and the spiritual above possessions but one glance at the clutter in our house or even our garage would refute that notion. I still seem to have as many clothes, tools, electronic gadgets and just ‘stuff’ as the neighbours. My principles don’t seem to have been converted into practise.
I have mixed feelings about possessions.
It’s definitely fun getting stuff. It feels good to wear something new and beautiful, or be creative in our homes or surprise someone we love with a present.
On the other hand there’s the storage challenge. Do you ever open cupboards and quickly shut them again before a barrage of stuff falls out? Then there are those old clothes, purchased pre-babies, which I’m convinced I’ll fit back into one day.
Research has shown how a house full of clutter increases stress and anxiety levels for a significant proportion of women and also for some men. (See here for our blog on this). I am certainly one of those women. Just looking at my house when the clutter begins to pile up makes me feel stressed and ‘stuffocated’. Home should be the place to unwind and relax; instead the mess makes me feel worse.
The reality is the more stuff we have the more researching, cleaning, storing, mending, sorting and replacing there is to do which eats into our income and our free time. (See here for Derek’s blog on the subject).
And if we’re really honest, how many times do we buy stuff for the wrong reasons? Are we actually trying to keep up with the Jones, create a certain image to impress or just feel better about ourselves?
If we step back from our own personal issues around stuff, there are also the wider environmental issues. I work with many high street retailers to help make their products more sustainable. Did you know that if everyone in the world lived like we do in the UK, we would need three planets to sustain us? Globally we have depleting the planets finite natural capital since around 1990 by our resource-hungry lifestyles. Put simply our children and grandchildren will not be able to have the lifestyle we enjoy today.
There is also the issue of waste. We’ve just celebrated Christmas. It’s a time when we throw out enormous amounts of paper, decorations and packaging, not to mention a staggering £64m of food; that’s enough for another 4m Christmas dinners.
Many products nowadays are simply not made to last or to be easily repaired. When we think we are throwing things away, there is actually no such place as ‘away’. It stays on our planet and is causing huge problems throughout the world. In the natural world everything is recycled; it is only we humans that create un-usable waste. Our personal ‘stuffocation’ is resulting in a global ‘stuffocation’ of rubbish and pollution.
The way forward
The first question to ask ourselves can be very uncomfortable. Why do we feel compelled to keep buying more stuff when we already feel ‘stuffocated’?
Behavioural change always involves two aspects: dealing first with the inner reality and then working out practical ways to change. Unless something changes inside so that we desire less stuff, we will constantly be battling to reduce our purchases and hence reduce our clutter.
If the Bible is about anything its about a change of behaviour through a change of heart. One of the biblical themes is to work on being happy with what you already have. In our blog’s on contentment we give some clues as to what that might look like and some steps to take .
In future blogs we hope to explore some more of these heart issues, such as identity, that drive our behavior.
We will also investigate some of the spiritual disciplines that are designed, in the words of Richard Foster, ‘to move us beyond surface living into the depths’. Where our behavior is driven by some hidden inner compulsion or a seemingly unbreakable habit it is the disciplines that open us up to God’s grace and power to set us free.
Once we’ve addressed the inner drivers of our behaviour we can begin to put in place some practical responses. If our heart is convinced that ‘less stuff means more life’ then we need to both stop the stuff coming in and deal with what is already in place.
Alison’s blog on ‘10 questions to ask before you go shopping’ provides some practical tips on how to stem the tide coming in.
And her blog on ‘6 steps for starting decluttering’ helps us create a reverse flow away from our homes.