Enjoy a Richer Life

  • Mar 7, 2008

My beloved BYU Alumni Magazine featured an article in January titled Enjoy a Richer Life by M. Sue Bergin; I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Bergin discusses five signs of materialism and strategies for change.

“Trying to define materialism is like a fish trying to describe water, says Carroll: “We swim in it. It’s all around us. It’s so pervasive that it’s very hard to question it and think about it clearly.” In addition, the material standards that define modest, good, or decadent living creep up over time and are highly subjective.”

I love that description. Materialism is truly all around us and to some extent it is necessary. We need clothes and shelter and such. And so many luxuries make our life richer and better: computers, cell phones, toys, musical instruments etc.

I love having a full beautiful house and well-dressed children but I know I have fallen into a trap of materialism when I spend an hour searching for the perfect dress for Mary when she would rather sit on the floor in her sweats and play Candyland with me. Great design and beautiful/useful objects are wonderful; but when “things” occupy a larger part of my heart and time than people I am clearly choosing poorly.

Years ago I asked a seminary teacher about my materialistic tendencies and he said, “As long as you are worrying about it, you’re probably doing OK.” For two decades that answer was good enough for me until I realized it is possible to worry about weight and still be fat or worry about overspending and still drain the checking account. I can’t just worry about greed; I have to do something about it.

Last summer my sister generously loaned us her home in San Diego as vacation lodging. She was traveling at the time and she knows that a place to stay is the biggest vacation expense for a family our size. I’ve always loved my sister. She is smart, adorable and wickedly funny. But my respect for her expanded daily as I stayed in her home.

My sister lives simply. Her 1700 square foot home is cheerful and beautiful with shelves packed with books and photo albums and a well-stocked kitchen and pantry. Her two daughters share one room and her two little boys share another. She has a big wrought-iron bed with beautiful linens and soft pillows. Outside the kitchen door is a vegetable garden overflowing with tomatoes, beans and flowers.

What is missing from her house is all the “stuff.” There are no piles of toys, no stacks of videos, no yard littered with toys(just a few balls and a tricycle). The small closets hold just a few well-chosen outfits(yes, they took clothes on vacation, but I could pack Mary 2 weeks worth of clothes and hardly make a dent in her closet). They have no TV– just a tiny VCR with a 12 inch screen that they keep in a closet. One evening on a mad hunt for Bandaids I opened way too many cupboards and looked under both bathroom sinks. The bathroom cabinet held: extra toilet paper, a toilet plunger and a blow dryer(um, please don’t look under my bathroom sink; all kinds of things will fall on top of you).

My sister’s house is an incredibly happy place. They have the conveniences of modern life– a computer in the kitchen, a washer and dryer, a great camera, a good car– but have eliminated much of the stress. Having ‘stuff’ means you have to take care of it. Simplifying our lives means having more time for the things that really matter.

A fabulous shopping companion, my sister has an eye for classic style and enthusiasm for clever and beautiful things(she loves her pink ipod). But she doesn’t “have to have” things; she enjoys the freedom and simplicity of owning less.

Ruth’s husband Bill is in his 2nd medical fellowship. He is an oncologist specializing in palliative care(end-of-life care, we call him Dr.Death). Bill is fiercely honest and refuses to be wined and dined by pharmaceutical companies because he doesn’t want material influences to affect his level of patient care. There is a lot of pressure for oncologists to prescribe expensive medications. Many offices even have graphs that display which doctor has prescribed the most rounds of chemotherapy in the past month.

Because Ruth and Bill have embraced a simple lifestyle, Bill will be able to maintain his principles as a fully practicing oncologist. He won’t be tempted to overprescribe simply to meet his quotas. Non-materialism gives him the freedom to be honest. And that’s a freedom we all crave.

March 5, 2008
March 9, 2008

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11 Comments

  1. Reply

    Katie

    March 8, 2008

    I have been thinking about this very thing… I agree- I let the ‘things’ overrule my life.. and now I am in a mess. If I only would have known what I know now 10 years ago when we had the simpler things. Sometimes- I want to throw it all away and start over. Thanks for this post…

  2. Reply

    Jan Russell

    March 9, 2008

    Hmm, I can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t sound like a big ole excuse for my own materialism…

    Your sister sounds adorable and grounded though. I think Jonathan would sign me up for some life-lessons with her, if he could 😉

  3. Reply

    go boo boo

    March 9, 2008

    Great article. And I loved your perspective on things and activities. Thanks.

  4. Reply

    Linkous

    March 10, 2008

    that’s something we’ve really learned with all our moving around–you don’t need much “stuff” to be happy. thank goodness, since we can’t take it with us!

  5. Reply

    Mama

    March 10, 2008

    I definitely would love to simplify and only have “the must-haves) (with the exception of clothing). I just love stuff too much! My house is so cluttered, though. I found this to be inspiring, and just in time for spring cleaning!

  6. Reply

    Holman House

    March 12, 2008

    Doesn’t it get confusing when you try to define the difference in “wants” and “needs”? People “need” different things, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We don’t have much stuff, we’ve been in school the last 10 years, and now I feel somehow that I deserve some things now, so this subject has been on my mind heavily. Often I want someone to tell me that the things that I want are okay, that it’s okay to buy Kayla an Easter dress, or some other such “want”. Thanks for the post.
    I’m Brendee’s sister by the way…

  7. Reply

    J

    March 13, 2008

    thank you for this post. i wish i could meet your sister! quitting his job and going back to school definitely mandated a shift in our spending.

    while i’m essentially fine with our living small situation, at our stage in life most of our peers are living quite a bit larger, and i’ve found that it’s mainly that comparison with others that generates the “i want” and “i wish” moments.

    hearing about your sister is comforting. hearing that you admire that way of living is even more inspiring. i’ve made peace with the fact that my real friends will like me for who i am and the experiences we share together, and the size / location of our home, and it’s attendant furnishings is of nearly no import.

    as far as i’m concerned, if this is “as good as it gets”, i’ve been one of the luckiest people who’ve lived. how many people in the history of our world have died without ever having the luxury of a warm bath. a ripe peach. chocolate. air conditioning. freedom to speak their minds. free time. work they genuinely love. etc. it’s really all about perspective.

    but i still ♥ your house! we’ll likely never have anything like it (kids’ll be grown by the time doc’s done with school/residency, so we won’t need that much space), but it’s fun to see and enjoy it any way.

    it was delightful to meet you today, and i’m enjoying your blog. hope to cross paths again!
    ~Blue (the little writer’s mom ) ♥

  8. Reply

    Mitchell Family

    March 16, 2008

    I’m flattered, I’m embarrassed, I agree.

    We read this just today. I’ve been on a blog hiatus while I’ve been busy catching up on some other stuff. But this came at just the right time. We were discussing materialism after church today and then Lizzy started reading this blog to us. I’m glad you consider our house so happy. I keep telling myself that I’m glad Bill keeps extending his training. A couple more years of limited income is really a blessing. But we all have moments of weakness and sometimes I wish I could afford more babysitting and clothes and a couch that’s no so ragged I have to keep a blanket on top of it. Next time I feel that way, I’ll read this blog. Thank you, Ruth

  9. Reply

    Mitchell Family

    March 16, 2008

    I’m flattered, I’m embarrassed, I agree.

    We read this just today. I’ve been on a blog hiatus while I’ve been busy catching up on some other stuff. But this came at just the right time. We were discussing materialism after church today and then Lizzy started reading this blog to us. I’m glad you consider our house so happy. I keep telling myself that I’m glad Bill keeps extending his training. A couple more years of limited income is really a blessing. But we all have moments of weakness and sometimes I wish I could afford more babysitting and clothes and a couch that’s no so ragged I have to keep a blanket on top of it. Next time I feel that way, I’ll read this blog. Thank you, Ruth

  10. Reply

    Elizabeth

    March 22, 2008

    Well we don’t have very much stuff now. Mom and Dad are doing an experiment putting some stuff in the garage for a month. Luckily it effects John and Will most ’cause Mom wouldn’t put books in the garage.

  11. Reply

    Bonnie

    March 27, 2008

    Sometimes I feel like there is too much stuff that I don’t need or never use or anything. But then I go through the stuff and think “I need this, I’ll miss it if I get rid of it, I’d never get over it…” I keep getting inspiration, but this is the best yet. It’s time for some Spring Cleaning. Thank you for reminding me of materialism! I needed that (again).

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