Thursday, December 02, 2010

tray-sure it up!

So, like most human beings with a heart, I love Christmas.  I love Jesus, and family, and friends, and celebrating, and cuddling up in the cold, so it's a nice holiday.  But there are elements of this season that bring my consumerism/materialism guilt out in full, vomit-inducing force. Know what I mean?

While I have my hippie tendencies, I am fully capable of shopping my brains out, and I'm all too familiar with the term "retail therapy."  But every once in a while, the grossed-out-by-stuff phase hits me full force, and I start thinking how awful and downright disgusting it is that in a world where people don't have safe drinking water or enough to eat, and when there are kids in our own zip codes who don't have coats or roofs, that I in all my privilege and abundance, somehow feel entitled to purchase frivolous and completely unnecessary things.  Whether for myself or others, it's still stuff, and it feels gluttonous when many have so little.

And if I think about it too long I end up feeling weighed down and even bloated by possessions, wasteful indulgence, etc.  I've had a hard time articulating my thoughts on this but have just had a nagging, foggy sense of OBS syndrome (Overwhelmed By Stuff) as of late.  So I was delighted to find this article in the latest New Era (a church magazine for teens...."Why are you reading a teen magazine, gurrbonzo?", you ask?  Well, because I work with that age group at church, dear reader.  Not because I'm clinging to my fading youth...although perhaps I am...but at least that's free).

Anyway, the article is called Enough Stuff: Five Tips for Tackling Materialism, by David A. Edwards.  I recommend the whole thing as a perfectly-timed discussion, but may I share some excerpts?
We all need stuff—stuff to wear, stuff to eat, stuff for home, stuff for school. And, of course, beyond the necessities there’s also the stuff we want but don’t really need, as well as the stuff we dream about but could never afford. There’s big stuff and little stuff, girl stuff and guy stuff, stuff for work and stuff for play, stuff for now and stuff for later. It seems the world is filled with stuff. If we’re not careful, we can have a hard time seeing past all that stuff. Material possessions (both those we have and those we want) can obstruct our view of who we really are and what life is really about. ...
"Obstructing our view of who we really are and what life is really about" is what I meant but failed to express very clearly in my grumpy post from last month.  Stuff gets in our way and prevents us from seeing the world and ourselves.  He then gives five tips on overcoming materialism, all of which I found thought-provoking.
1.  Know who you are.  One of the most subtle and dangerous aspects of materialism is the false identity it can give us. When we think of ourselves in terms of our stuff—whether it’s our clothes, our toys, or our money—we paint a pale and shrunken picture of ourselves...But the Savior reminds us, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).
2.  Know where you're going.  The scriptures give us several correctives to the “gimme, gimme” philosophy.  The prophet Alma taught, “Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world; for behold, you cannot carry them with you” (Alma 39:14). You’ve probably heard the saying “You can’t take it with you.” Well, it’s scriptural...So where should our focus be? The Savior has told us to look beyond the way station of this world toward our final destination. He said, “Seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 6:38). He also taught, “Thou shalt lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better” (D&C 25:10).

3.  Be Grateful.  Modern prophets have taught that gratitude can transform our lives...And the Lord Himself has promised, “He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more” (D&C 78:19).

4.  Think outside yourself.  ...Material things, along with the ways they are marketed, move our focus onto ourselves rather than others. In this way, materialism can cause us to quietly reject the Lord’s commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39).  This focus on self and the stuff of this world is not part of living “after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi 5:27). In fact, modern research seems to have verified that (1) you can’t buy happiness and (2) a focus on others can bring greater personal satisfaction.  As Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1917–2008) taught, “We are happiest when our lives are connected to others through unselfish love and service.”

5.  Be wise.  Again, we all need some stuff, and most stuff is neither good nor bad in and of itself...But over time the incessant drone of materialism can influence our attitudes and thoughts and cause us to forget the Lord and His commandments, as well as our true selves. So we must be on guard....  “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”Matthew 6:19–21.
"The incessant drone of materialism" is exactly how I've been feeling about the whole thing.  It's deafening sometimes.  Is that article great or what?  Does the holiday season consumerism make you pukey sometimes, too?  What do you think of all this?  Have you figured out a way to balance it?  Agree or disagree?


Colt said...

I agree, with the caveat that I am a terrible offender. I love Brooks Brothers and getting presents. I also always feel like I am stuck in A Charlie Brown Christmas whenever I get into one of these materialism discussions around the holiday.

That said one of the best Christmases ever was on my mission when I didn't receive a lot but helped out two people who needed it with the Christmas cash I got. That memory for some reason has not detoured my lust for an XBox and a new light gray Brooks Brothers suite ala Don Draper this holiday season

Emily said...

Yes, it bugs me. I read a bunch when I was pregnant about simplifying life with kids, and holidays were always a big part of it. We have a reasonably low maximum to spend on each of us, and in general (not just holidays) we avoid a lot of toy-centric places. We don't go to Toys R Us and scurry past the toy aisles at Target, for example. This year for financial reasons (baby coming in February) we're not spending any money. I feel a bit guilty but that's a separate issue :). So I think on Christmas day we'll make cookies to bring to people, watch nativity videos, etc. Any gifts will be made from my fabric on hand. Another thing: I don't plan on incorporating Santa in our family Christmas traditions except as a game or playing secret Santa to others. I have a long list of reasons why, but as applies here it's because I think that's a huge part of making Christmas a material celebration and not a religious one.

Do I sound totally crazy yet? ;)

I'm by no means perfect on the materialism, and my weakness is in liking nice or high quality (which often means expensive...) things, but it's definitely something I'm constantly mindful of.

Tarra said...

I just stumbled on something that we are going to implement this year (and for future kids should we be so blessed). The husband and I each get 4 gifts within our budget that meet the following criteria:

Something you Want, Something you Need, Something to Wear, Something to Read.

I've seen families add others (share, eat, play with, listen to, watch). I love the idea of simplifying.

There is something so off-putting to me about the gift exchanges that I usually get roped in to. "Here is a list of what I want all around $20, I'll buy a present that is approximately the same value and we can feel good about ourselves." Yuck. Let's just trade $20 bills. I was thinking about a few special gifts that I wanted to get someone, but then they announced that they wanted to be sure they got great presents this year not the crap they normally get and the Spirit of Christmas went rushing out of the room.

Motion DeSmiths said...

Here's the short history of my materialism: I recently bought what, for me, is a lot of clothing. And I've kinda been on a high about it for the last week. Though I had plenty to wear, I think a lot of it was dated and ill-fitting and hole-y. I don't think I've attempted to change my look since high school.

So I went on a bit of a spree. And I have felt so much better about myself ever since. I look better and feel better going out in public and meeting new people. It's amazing how a few new items to my wardrobe have got me totally pumped. Perhaps its because a *real* shopping trip is so atypical for me.

But then I had a hard time turning my shopping-self off. Even though I had acquired all these new things, I keep thinking of more stuff I "needed." I had to consciously stop myself from getting more, when before last week, no spending was my default setting.

So there's totally a balance. Stuff can make you feel good. My new clothes certainly do, and on no uncertain terms, I feel fabulous in them.

But stuff can make you feel weighed down when you're a slave to it. I think back on all of the crappy cheap clothing I bought in law school because it was something new. I was kinda addicted to getting something--anything--new. Target was the worst because I could usually find something completely frivolous to buy and I justified it because it was cheap. It was usually $5-$10 shirts that I didn't really LOVE at all, and that fell apart after two washes. I wish that I had saved all that money and bought one or two high quality items that I really could enjoy.

Tracy said...

Amen, sisters. Often I dread Christmas because either I get totally caught up in the commercialism and wanting more, more, more until I can't look at myself in the mirror or I just get totally bogged down in all of the materialism and become depressed. This year I decided to focus on three things:

1) Making Christ the center of Christmas (see President Packer's Christmas message, I like how he says the Santa Claus stuff is not of the devil but that there is definitely more to Christmas than Santa.

2) Finding opportunities to serve (as a part of No. 1)

3) Giving more gifts that are meaningful. This takes more time and energy but working on these kinds of projects is more energizing than perusing Christmas gimme lists and buying stuff just to check off presents on my to do list. I think one good area here is genealogy: putting together life histories or family trees or even just collecting photographs to make little albums so that families spread across the country can look at pictures of each other.

(I loved the ideas the other commenters gave so I thought I would just put down mine.)

And I feel better already this year, Merry Christmas!

Dorothy said...

This is an excellent reminder about the true meaning of Christmas. Seriously, thanks so much. My struggle has always been balance. You've met my mom, and you've seen how she dresses. She has no concept at all of dressing nicely; she says she doesn't see the point and has no desire to (although I wonder if that's always true). In middle school I wore clothes from her closet because I didn't have many of my own. After I got teased and I tried to not wear some of the awful items of clothing she told me to wear (sorry, Mom, I love you but it's true), she told me I was being picky and ungrateful. I have always felt uncomfortable spending extra money solely for aesthetics, but really, you have to do it a little or else you'll wind up looking homeless.
However, Christmas is an excellent time to remember what is really important in life. It is unfortunate that it has become an opportunity for marketing specialists to make us feel inadequate, and that the only cure is spending lots of money.

Motion DeSmiths said...

I love these comments. Emily, I'm also choosing not to do Santa at my house. When I have kids, we'll treat it as a game we play with other people (and warn that it's not nice to spoil the game), but I don't want to lie to my kids--especially about belief.

I really like the want/need/wear/read idea.

I was just thinking about this RS activity I went to where we made hair bows for girls in Africa. I ridiculed the idea as completely idiotic until my friend Lisa reminded me that these girls had every right to feel pretty, or have something nice.

Ru said...

1. I love when people say "tray-sure."

2. Completely agree with the above commenters about gift exchanges. It always starts as a nice idea, but ends with me just wanting to pull my checkbook out and asking, "How much do you want?"

3. BUT, I also love commercialism, because I'm kind of a bad person like that. So I channel my shopping into Sub for Santa. When you go completely overboard for a stranger, it's like, "Well, at least it's for a good cause."

~j. said...

That is a great article, thanks for sharing it.

My dream -- and I feel that it's not far off (read: when, after more than a decade, we're finished with diapers around here) -- is that birthdays are for opening gifts and Christmas is for traveling, for experiences, for serving. Instead of my kids' memories including "I think I got a DS one year for Christmas - or was that my birthday? I don't remember, except that I lost it a month later," it would be, "And I'll always remember that time we went to [location] to [have experience]." Building homes, humanitarian aid, and the like. Dig?

Brooke said...

I love the want, need, wear, read idea posted above. I definitely agree that consumerism can be a very bad thing and can completely overshadow the experiences that make the holiday (or just life in general) so great. We do what many others have already mentioned -- setting a low maximum amount for Christmas, and the rest of the year sticking to an allowance -- only paying cash for things that are not necessities. We've made sure there's enough in the allowance for the occasional indulgence -- last month I bought a sweater just because it was cute and husband bought a book he thought looked interesting -- but not so much wiggle room that we aren't forced to really prioritize our wants and balance them out with true needs. I think that's the key to avoiding OBS -- priorities. We're smarter with our purchases (they tend to be art, literature, and music instead of gadgets and disposable items because we know it's the only thing we get that month). It's been nice to be married for more than year and not have a year's worth of "stuff" to show for it. I don't have a single house decoration or even a decent can opener, but we have some pretty awesome memories of the ballet, hiking Zions canyon, we HUGELY closer than we were six months ago to having our credit cards paid off, and we were able to donate a lot more this season to those in need. Win-win-win.

Lisa R.D. said...

I loved this article (and just finished putting it into our ward newsletter) and all of the comments. I don't have much to add, just that sometimes when I'm running from store to store I can hear a little voice egging me on... "Consume more, buy more, spend more, get more stuff!" This article was just what I needed!

Liz said...

I love the first one. "Know who you are." If our youth (and everyone else, really) could figure that one out, the rest would come naturally, I think. It seems like the majority of frivolous stuff we buy we only think we want because we are constantly comparing ourselves to others.

Deanna said...

This is a great article and I'm so glad you shared. I love the well thought out comments as well.

I think it's important to remember that stuff isn't necessarily bad. Stuff for stuff's sake is where we get in trouble. If it takes the place of our God or our family or our fellow man, it can be destructive and painfully empty.

We are living on a grad student budget and have very limited funds for Christmas gifts for our children. We decided on a small spending limit for each and have kept within it well (so far). Just this morning, my sweet hubby suggested we get a few $5 trinket gifts to fill in the gaps. What gaps? They are going to be excited about the gift that we KNOW will make their day. We can spend time with each other and not focused on lots of random stuff. It made me laugh a little that this sweet man, who is desperate to toss the ridiculous number of toys that clutter our house, was so quick to feel that instinct, to have lots of gifts to shove in our 3 & 1 year olds' faces.

I must add that I agree with Dorothy. Your mom and my mom could go bowling. I heard over and over comments about wearing labels in my youth. "If you can't stand on your own name, it shouldn't matter who's name is sewn across your butt." There's truth in that... but the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. It is good to be deliberate in purchasing well-made and attractive clothing. I know it makes me feel a little more confident. Just don't let it become your god, or even your little sister.

Mrs. Clark said...

Amen, amen, amen to all of your comments!

This has been a real dilemma for me. My husband of 30 years and I are converts, and for him (an only child who was overindulged) Christmas is about stuff, stuff, stuff! Frankly, I could do without presents at all for myself--I have everything I could ever need (remember, I've been collecting stuff for 30 years) and it's just a matter of replacing things that break or wear out.

But remember, as some of you have pointed out, that good-quality stuff really is worth saving for, because it lasts longer, looks and works and wears better than cheap stuff. Quality is always better than quantity. And it is important to look your best--what does the "I give up" look say to others about what you think about yourself as a child of God?

KT said...

I'm basically all about the presents. And the candy.

KT said...

I'm also all about Santa. My mom used to throw carrots on the roof of our house on Christmas Eve and ring sleigh bells outside our windows. I loved that part of Christmas. I think you can have both. You don't need to squash out Santa in order to focus on Jesus. Plus, if you forget about Santa, who the crap is going to break into your house via your chimney and leave you free loot? The three kings? Yeah right.