A friend of mine recently helped his retired parents move from a larger home into a smaller, two-bedroom house. A significant problem showed up quickly: limited closet space.
Both parents had accumulated a lifetime of clothing from department stores, catalogs, and garage sales. Several items had never been worn — and never would be. Still, they could not bear to get rid of anything. So they converted the spare bedroom into a massive walk-in closet. The upside? Plenty of space for their duds. The downside? Family visitors can't stay in the spare bedroom — because it's filled wall to wall.
Of course, the problem of accumulation isn't limited to retirees with one too many pairs of pants. It's a cultural epidemic. For proof, we need look no further than the self-storage industry, which is making money on the fact that we're overflowing with possessions. According to the Self Storage Association, there are now more than 2 billion square feet of self-storage space in the country. That computes to 6.86 square feet of space for every person in the United States, which means you could physically shelter every man, woman, and child under the combined roofs of those units, all at the same time.
OK. We have a lot of stuff. So what?
What's Mine Is ... Whose?
Laurryn Trojanowski, an office manager in Illinois, recently asked herself why she had so many things. She had been reading Matthew 6, where Jesus tells His listeners not to store up treasures on earth but to focus on treasures in heaven. He concludes with the well-known verse 21: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
"I spent some time thinking about where my heart was and what I treasured," she says. "I realized that I really liked things — stuff, material items — to an extent that I didn't feel was appropriate for a Christian."
Trojanowski spent a week cleaning out belongings that served no purpose other than taking up space. She donated bags of clothing and shoes to local charities and tossed a bunch of old VHS tapes. Then she took one important step beyond organizing and tidying up. She also rearranged her spending habits, resolving to consider what she buys - and keeps - very carefully. "Jesus didn't die so that I could buy another pair of shoes at Target," she adds.
Louie Rudin has built his life around a similar conviction. A YoungLife college minister living near Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., he shares a "ministry house" with six male college students. Not only does he live in community, but he wears thrift-shop clothing, walks more than he drives, and seldom purchases anything new. Why? Rudin cites Jesus' words in Luke 9: "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me." He says that he finds it hard to justify Christian self-denial with a mindset that emphasizes the pursuit of gaining more things for himself.
"The simple life of Christ and His followers should be plain examples to us that we're to value relationships and experiences over money and items," adds Maarten Jacobs, a young professional also committed to living with less. He works with a Christian organization to revitalize the impoverished North Side of Syracuse, N.Y. Jacobs views simplicity as deliberately taking time to reflect on our habits and compulsions in order to assess which things are truly important. Then, he says, pursue those things.
Living in a Material World
"There are more and more people today who really resonate with the idea that the more we own, the less we have," says Shane Claiborne, author of "The Irresistible Revolution" and co-founder of The Simple Way, a faith community in inner-city Philadelphia. He points out how owning more leads to more worries about pursuing and keeping up with our stuff, which means less time for God. Less time for people. Less time for the virtues of a well-lived life.
Rudin details his experience with this example: "Two cars generally require twice as much maintenance as one, which in turn requires more time and money, which in turn requires more income, which generally requires more time spent at work."
In other words, we become slaves to our work so we can pay for stuff we're too busy to actually enjoy due to our heavy workload. It's a vicious, familiar cycle. How often do we feel like our possessions and everything connected to them - from finances to careers — bring stress into our lives? Who hasn't had a day ruined by a glitchy computer or a broken-down car? When that happens, we have to ask ourselves: Do I really own my things, or do they own me?
"We get held down by our possessions," says Trojanowski, who has tried to make a new habit of giving things away, like a book she's already read or a purse she knows a friend admires. When she does this, she says, "I feel a little lift. It reminds me that I'm not chained to those things."
The "lift" doesn't just apply to small items either. Jacobs recently bought a modest home in Syracuse. He could have afforded something larger, he says, but he wanted to make sure each room was necessary and would be used every day. He takes the money he saved on a lower mortgage and puts it toward things he cares about: hospitality and trips to visit friends. And the things he does own, he loans out frequently - without worrying whether they'll be returned.
"Changing my mindset about possessions has freed me from the bondage of desiring to hold on to them," he says. Slaves. Chains. Bondage. Most of those who advocate a simpler lifestyle agree that freedom is a definite theme when it comes to living with less. The question that follows, then, becomes this: What do you do with all that freedom?
Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now
"When we talk of materialism and simplicity, we have to begin with love for God and neighbor," Claiborne says. He laments that the idea of living with less often becomes too inwardly focused and negative — it becomes about not having things or about personal piety. Claiborne prefers to paint simplicity in a more outward-facing light: Living simply means freeing yourself up to help people. "The best thing to do with good food or clothes is to share them," he adds.
Claiborne says that he once bought an ice cream cone as a birthday present for a young boy in India. The boy tasted the ice cream, then started running around to give each of his friends a lick. "The gifts of God are so good we can't keep them to ourselves," Claiborne explains. Loosening our hold on stuff makes it easier to give it away. De-cluttering our lives frees up space or money or time we can devote to more important things. To God. To people. To service. To ministries we believe in.
Yes, it's idealistic. Yes, it's extremely hopeful. Most people in our culture would probably brush off that kind of thinking as a sentiment more suited to a peaced-out hippie than a modern-day American. But that doesn't mean it's wrong. If I'm so influenced by our "have it your way" culture that I can dismiss a clearly biblical concept as being naïve ... well, that's a pretty strong indictment of the world in which I work, live, and even worship.
In his definitive book "Freedom of Simplicity," Richard Foster writes that living with less "brings sanity to our compulsive extravagance and peace to our frantic spirit." The thing about people like Shane Claiborne or Louie Rudin is that they seem genuinely sane and peaceful. They seem content. They're happy, despite walking more than the rest of us and despite doing it with fewer pairs of shoes.
So go ahead and call them idealists. Dismiss their counter-cultural convictions by calling them radicals. They won't mind because it's true.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go clean out my closet.