Last summer an unfortunate woman was found dead in the basement of her Connecticut home, found eventually, that is. It took rescuers several days to retrieve her body as the first floor of her house had collapsed on her, apparently under the weight of all the stuff she had accumulated over the years.
Her possessions, stacked to the ceiling with only a narrow, labyrinth-like pathway through it all, quite literally smothered her. Her death certificate said so officially with the cause of death declared as “Accidental Traumatic Asphyxia.” This is a dramatic example, of course, but accumulating those things that fall outside the realm of the necessary, will take your life just as certainly.
Jesus said it like this: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. But store your treasures in heaven. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else.” These words are directed at every packrat, collector, hoarder, attic squirrel, and garage-gatherer among us. If you aren’t using it – you don’t need it. Hang on to it, and it will take your life from you.
I’ve often said that the most deeply spiritual thing that some of us could do is have a garage sale; or sell a property, or dump a portfolio, or write a big check to the homeless shelter down the street. Because our spiritual lethargy has nothing to do with a poor prayer life, the lack of reading the Scriptures, or any failure with other disciplines: We are carrying too much baggage, trying to manage too much stuff. We have too many possessions, too many obligations, and it’s a recipe for misery.
The path to contentment is by way of less, not more. When we simplify, we are doing much more than getting rid of the weight of physical possessions. We are making space to breathe, to thrive, to live. By giving up some of the things we carry or hoard, we aren’t losing, we are gaining; gaining freedom to pursue life.
This was Henry David Thoreau’s motivation when he left his teaching career and retreated to the woods of Walden Pond. He lived there for two years in simpleness, wrestling with the question, “How much is enough?” and more importantly, “How much does it actually cost a person to obtain his or her possessions?”
His theory of personal economics came down to this: The cost of a thing is not the financial price tag attached to it. It is the amount of one’s life it takes to get it. For example, if one wants a particular house, the sale price is not as important as the years it takes to pay for it. If one wants a car, a computer, a new iPhone, or designer label clothing; then the calculation involves more than the payments.
Calculate how much time and life it will cost to acquire these things. That’s the real price tag. Quoting Thoreau directly, he said, “If your trade is with the Celestial Empire” (which apparently is his description for what Jesus called the Kingdom of God), “then very little is actually needed to live well and to be free.
“A modest home should be enough…plain clothes will do…instead of a hundred dishes, why not five; and reduce other things in proportion…Keep your accounts on your thumbnail…simplify, simplify…and once you have secured the necessaries of life, then you can confront the true problems of life with freedom.”
And there Thoreau brings us to the universal human ambition: We all just want to be free and happy. It’s all a search for satisfaction. Is a “spirituality of satisfaction” too shallow, too frivolous? No, not if one is seeking genuine, soul-sustaining fulfillment with one’s self and life.
But getting more won’t get it done, because more and more of what is not good for you will only smother you. As Thoreau concluded, “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.”