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.