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Some Stuff About Stuff

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Friday, August 10, 2012

Some Stuff About Stuff

“Adventure in Moving,” said old U-Haul trucks causing rafts of sardonic laugh. Oh, it’s an adventure all right.

In this adventure in moving we are relocating from Washington, D.C. to Lander, Wyoming. “We” being my wife and me along with an estimated (and mildly embarrassing) 12,595 pounds of stuff.

And it’s all ours and it’s all got to be moved. As comedian George Carlin put it:

You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. Everybody’s gotta have a place for his stuff. That’s all your house is. Your house is nothin’ but a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. ... So really, your house is noting more than a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get — more stuff! ‘Cause that’s what this country is all about — tryin’ to get more stuff.

I’ve thought a lot about stuff lately as we pack and in the wake of my mom’s death a couple of months ago. Mom had lots of great stuff in her home, much of it in mint condition. But after nearly 35 years of marriage, my wife and I have plenty of our own stuff. And after five years of marriage, our son and his wife have plenty of their own stuff too. But now Mom’s stuff is our stuff and that makes for a lot of stuff.

Life today is complicated and a good deal of our stuff is justifiable — beds, computers and toothbrushes come to mind. Beyond the necessary plus a reasonable number of extras, however, we accumulate excess stuff because on some level we believe the advertising copy on the box for a plastic toy from China called "Super Plane." In addition to advising, “Go with your children everyday in their pullulation” (?), the box proclaims, “Collect all these exciting new set.it will give you infinite pleasure” [sic]. And who doesn’t want “infinite pleasure”?

Humans desire infinite pleasure because we were created for infinite pleasure. Consider: if God is as delightful and loving as the Bible tells us he is and if what C.S. Lewis called “the unblushing promise of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels” are true, then without question infinite pleasure is our future as Christians. We were created to know, glorify, love and enjoy God, who is infinite truth, goodness and beauty. As St. Augustine of Hippo prayed at the beginning of his Confession, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

That restlessness comes from seeking infinite pleasure in finite stuff. Stuff, even the really good stuff, doesn’t last. It can be lost or stolen or can just rot away (see Matthew 6:19). Finite stuff by definition can never deliver infinite pleasure.

Beyond stuff, the sight of the Grand Tetons or the Grand Canyon is breathtaking, but the beauty of creation is finite as well and so it can’t give infinite pleasure either. Even human love — as wonderfully good and pleasurable as love is — is finite. Love wears out; loved ones die. Finite love can’t fulfill the desire for infinite pleasure. Stuff, experiences and relationships being finite and temporary can only yield finite and temporary pleasure. Infinite pleasure requires the One who is infinite.

Now, I know that you’re smart enough to know that plastic toys only yield finite pleasure even if you purchase “all these new set” and always go with your children as they pullulate. We all know that electronics, antiques, dishes, clothes, sporting goods, books, furniture, cookware and assorted other stuff — all of which we will be moving to Wyoming — may bring some pleasure to us, but cannot satisfy the built-in desire for infinite pleasure. But that doesn’t typically prevent us from accumulating all of the above and more in the vague and vain hope that somehow this time it will otherwise.

Should we jettison all or most of our stuff? Not necessarily. Finite pleasures are legitimate as long as they don’t short-circuit our ability to receive infinite pleasure. The goal, I think is to consider our stuff, develop a sense of perspective about it, and learn contentment. As singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote about finite pleasures:

I believe it’s a sin to try and make things last forever.

Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day.

Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered.

Take your place with grace and then be on your way.

Grasp finite stuff loosely even as you box it and move it. It won’t last. Grip the infinite with all your might. Therein lies the infinite pleasure for which we were created. And that, after all, is the real adventure.

Publication date: August 10, 2012