My friend Kathy Berken wrote a book several years ago about her experiences living in a L’Arche community in Clinton, Iowa. Titled Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark, it is a worthwhile read for many reasons and her openness in describing her own growth through some extraordinarily difficult experiences is inspiring as well as instructive.
One of the the episodes she related was not at all unique to L’Arche community living and it involves a subject I suspect many of us can relate to.
Talking about one of the residents in the house, she described his tendency to take things home and stash them “in his sacred drawer alongside all the other crap he brings home.” It was her further description that I resonated with:
It’s a Junk Drawer. Pack Rats like us grew up with the family Junk Drawer. The Pack Rat Creed is: “Don’t throw that away because you never know when you might need it. The day you throw it out, that’s when you will need it.”
Sigh. How familiar I am with the Pack Rat Creed…and I have more than one “junk drawer.” Despite the fact that I don’t buy a whole lot of anything other than books, I seem to accumulate a lot of stuff.
I do throw away a lot of things. But it takes conscious effort to overcome the “you never know when you might need it.” (It is amazing how many possibilities the mind can come up with for potential uses for something that hasn’t been used for at least several years.)
I do think the conscious effort is worth it. I always feel better after I’ve trucked several big bags of things off to Goodwill or otherwise donated them. But there is always more, and I know I need to commit more firmly to abandoning the Pack Rat Creed.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend George brought a website to my attention, Accompl.sh, a site that allows one to set personal goals and track the progress toward those goals. The site also has challenges that one can enter with other members of the site.
One of the challenges that caught my eye immediately was “Shed 100 possessions.” As my husband can attest, I periodically look around the house and get crazy at all that we have. “We have too many things,” I cry out. This is usually followed by my walking around the house stuffing things in a paper bag to get rid of. Loving the idea of encouragement to get rid of more, I entered the challenge and am working my way toward reaching 100.
I don’t always easily find the words to explain this impetus to my husband. But, I know it is a good one. In a wonderful coincidence of timing, shortly after I began the “Shed 100 possessions” challenge, I came across this excerpt from Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. I think it does a great job of explaining why the impetus is positive. Rohr writes:
Living in the second half of life, I no longer have to prove that I or my group is the best, that my ethnicity is superior, that my religion is the only one that God loves, or that my role and place in society deserve superior treatment. I am not preoccupied with collecting more goods and services; quite simply, my desire and effort—every day—is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received. I now realize that I have been gratuitously given to–from the universe, from society, and from God. I try now, as Elizabeth Seton said, “to live simply so that others can simply live.”
For St. Vincent de Paul, one of the five characterisic virues is simplicity. I can’t say I’ve achieved it (far from it), but I’m working on it.
Sometimes my husband will say to me, “Do we need [some household or personal item]?” I almost always cringe at the “do we need” question, because the question never really concerns anything that could remotely be described as something we actually need. It may or may not be something one or the other of us wants, but there is certainly no need.
The distinction between need and want is an important one to be sensitive to, because we tend to elide them quite easily, moving very quickly, sometimes without realizing it, from thinking we want something to thinking we need it. Richard Rohr observes that “[w]hat we now call needs were formerly wants, and these needs have moved to such a level of sophistication that now luxuries are “necessities” for many of us. This keeps us quite trapped and un-free, and inherently unsatisfied.”
I’m not advocating emptying all of our possessions out into the street (although there are people who have taken the challenge of reducing their belongings to 100 items). But, we would do well to rememember, in Rohr’s words, that “most of God’s people have to learn to find happiness and freedom at a much simpler level” than we do. If our happiness depends on what we have rather than what we are, we are doomed to feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
Try this for a practice: resolve to be attentive to every time you or someone in your family says you “need” something (other than things like a quart of milk). Then look at what it is and ask yourself, is this really something we need? If the answer is no, ask yourself why you framed it in terms of a need. See where your reflection takes you.
We’re just back from several days in Chicago. Although there were many positive aspects to the trip – two college visits, some great meals and a fun visit to the Art Institute, the last of which I haven’t been to in years (perhaps decades) – it was not a trip of unadulterated joy. Elena lost both her sunglasses and a ring. The sunglasses, which she admits cost way more than sunglasses should, was something she asked for as a birthday gift and she loved them and looked great in them. The ring was a gift from her best friend. She left the sunglasses at the booth in the restaurant at which we ate breakfast one morning and the ring appears to have fallen off her finger at some point during our visit to the Art Institute. (We checked lost and found at both places to no avail. Ultimately – just as we were leaving Chicago, the sunglasses turned up, but not the ring.)
Elena was quite upset at both losses. At one level I don’t have any difficulty understanding that. Both items were special to her for their own reasons. And she spend no small amount of time beating herself up over her carelessness.
As I reflected on her sadness and disappointment, however, it struck me that we might be helped if we could develop a different understanding of our relationship to our possessions. I think that for the most part we acquire things (by gift or purchase or otherwise) and develop the expectation that we will have them always. They are “ours.” We own them and we think we will always own them. We forget that the reality is that it is only a question of time before we will cease to own them. They will break…we will lose them…they will get stolen…they will be subject to ordinary wear and tear…or we may put them aside and forget about them.
As I contemplated Elena’s sadness, I thought: might it make a difference is we could develop a sense that what we possess, we posses for a time and only for a time? That the things we have are there for us to enjoy, but only for a limited period of time and when they are gone, they are gone. No sadness. No recrimination. Our time with them is simply over.
I don’t suggest that is easy. When I tried this idea out on Elena while she was still upset about her ring, she was skeptical. But I think there is something here that is not unrelated to the idea of the Buddhist idea of renunciation – we enjoy what we have while we have it…and don’t cling to it when it is gone. We posses our possesions while we posses them, and no longer. And when they are gone, we give thanks for what we have and let them go. It is a mindset that would save us a lot of heartache if we could manage it.
In today’s Gospel, a man asks Jesus what he must do to secure eternal life. When the man assures Jesus that he observes all of the commandments, Jesus tells him is is “lacking in one thing,” instructing him to sell what he has and give it to the poor. When Jesus’ disciples express astonishment at Jesus’ statement tht it is difficult for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, he tells them that “[i]t is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
What comes to mind when I hear Jesus’ allusion to a camel passing through the eye of a needle is the story sometimes told of a monkey whose hand gets trapped inside a glass jar. The jar has some food or trinket that the monkey is attracted to. The monkey can easily get his open hand into the jar, but once he closes his fist onto the treasure inside the jar, he is stuck, since he can’t pass his closed fist back through the jar opening. Thus, the monkey is trapped. He could easily free himself by simply letting go of what is inside the jar. But he cannot bring himself to give up the treasure.
I think that is a good image to keep in mind as we sit with today’s Gospel. It reminds us that it is our attachments that keep us trapped, that prevent us from passing easily “through the eye of a needle.” The subject of the attachment will be different for each of us.For the man who asked Jesus the question, it may have been his attachment to his possessions.
What is it for you? What do you hang onto instead of God? Or phrased in the alternative, what do you need to let go of in order to freely go before God?