Clutter, Confusion and Contentment
Kh. Krista West · June 16, 2008
Audio length: 13:32
Some thoughts on the clutter in our lives and how it affects our spiritual state.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. Those of you who listened to my last podcast learned that I have just moved from my home of eight years into a new house. The new house is a wonderful blessing, with more space and a better floor plan for our growing family and growing parish. This past week was Official Moving Week, with all the upset that brings—where should this chair go? Where would that lamp look best? Is my house ever going to look like a home again? It’s been a long week with many evenings finding me still unpacking boxes or organizing my kitchen until the wee hours.
But the good news is, I’ve had a lot of time to think. After all, unpacking boxes and figuring out where your silverware and Crock pot go isn’t exactly mentally demanding! One of the things that I’ve thought about most this week is how much “stuff” I have. I have kitchen stuff, and kid’s stuff, and garage stuff, and of course, lots and lots of fabric and sewing stuff. I have Christmas decorations and old files and garage sale “finds”. I have shoes from ten years ago and magazine clippings from two decades ago. All of this stuff has caused me much consternation this week and not just because myself and my ever-generous friends have had to lug it all to the new house.
The source of my consternation is that if you had just met me at coffee hour, and we got to talking about whether we’re the pack-rat “type” or the “throwaway” type, I would have definitely have put myself in the “throwaway” category. You see, up until now, I have prided myself on being organizationally superior to my fellow man, and along with that, having very little sentiment in my makeup, I save almost nothing. I have my graduation cap from high school and an old Sound of Music record that I listened to as a child and a tiny pickle fork that a relative gave me when I visited Norway. But besides, that, my personal sentimental possessions amount to zilch. I have always thought of myself as one of the lighter travelers on this earth and been secretly pleased with myself for being so. I have had to force myself to save things for my daughters like their Pascha dresses or birthday cards because my initial reaction is always to recycle or pass something along once it has been used.
Well, as of this week, the bubble of my pride has burst and I am coming out of the organizational closet—with a stack of boxes in my arms! I know that I cannot think or operate well in clutter or chaos, so all of my stuff was neatly organized in plastic totes or file boxes. But, my, how many totes there were when they were all neatly stacked in the garage! An entire garage full of totes and boxes. How depressing! When I stepped inside my new home and looked around at the wonderful space, I vowed then and there, that no extraneous stuff was going to pass the threshold.
I began sorting and cleaning out and I was pleasantly startled to find my mental state lifting as I did so. Rather than be discouraged that I hadn’t found a way to use that cute vintage fabric someone had given me five years ago, I was thinking of the person at the thrift store who was going to be thrilled when they spotted this bargain.
I realized that my stuff, which I didn’t think of as clutter because it was very tidy and quote/unquote “organized”, was still causing confusion in my life. Having things around me that I hadn’t used, or couldn’t use, or wouldn’t be able to use, was causing a virtual roadblock in my life, both physically and spiritually. I began to contemplate how much “stuff” we carry around in our spiritual lives that causes this kind of confusion. All those “little” passions that seem if not quite harmless, at least low priority on our spiritual “to do” list.
This confusion ultimately comes from a lack of freedom. We are bound by our “stuff”, whether physical or spiritual “stuff”. Because I have totes of old fabric and buttons and thread, I feel compelled to use these things, to create something wonderful to show that I am being frugal or diligent or creative, in short, that I am somehow being “virtuous” by using my stuff. It’s a classic distraction from the enemy—that we would think of our stuff as somehow making us better, when actually, it distracts us from the true freedom of letting go of all of these things that surround us.
There is a sect in Canada called the Dukhebhors. They began in Russia and fled to Canada en masse aftering experiencing persecution in their homeland. A very small minority of Dukebhors, called the Freedomites staged arson campaigns as evidence of their rejection of material life. They would light their own homes on fire and walk away as the ultimate rejection of the material world. While a very controversial group (they also bombed schools), there were about three days this week when I quite tempted to become a Dukhebhor! I imagined walking away with nothing and my first thought was, “How freeing!”.
Now, of course, we live in a material world and as most of you are quite tired of hearing me say, we as Orthodox Christians do not reject the material, but we understand that it is transfigured through the love and grace of God. And herein lies the litmus test for our “stuff”—is it transfiguring our lives? Does it have at least some quality of redemption about it? My roasting pan that I only use once a year at Thanksgiving falls in this category—I use it for hospitality towards my family and friends, so it stays. The box of my clothes that I haven’t worn in a year—not redemptive for me, but can be quite redemptive for women at the shelter up the road. They go. It’s a pretty easy sorting system, both for the material and the spiritual. That niggling little passion that keeps tripping me up? Well, it’s certainly not redemptive, so I better apply some work to rooting it up and tossing it out.
I was chatting with my good friend, Tru, while we were lugging boxes on Monday, and we were commiserating about how much stuff there seems to be foisted upon us in our modern American lives. I often feel as if I am standing braced with my hands straight out, trying to keep the tidal wave of stuff at bay. Now, it may be that we both have young children and more Playmobil that an entire village in Denmark, but we both noticed that we have to work NOT to have stuff in our lives. That it’s almost easier to give into the cascade of stuff. To go with the flow and buy or acquire more stuff. That it takes discipline and focus to not make unnecessary purchases, even if they seem frugal from the outside. I can’t count the times I’ve gotten a great “find” at a garage sale, usually spending a dollar or two, and then sometime later, realize that it’s just another “thing” clogging up my closet or my life.
My husband’s aunt was chrismated this last week, after patiently waiting for many years for an Orthodox mission to come to her small town. The mission is there now and they are served by a monastery about an hour away. The priest-monk who was chrismating her arrived with some of the brotherhood and began setting up for the service. My husband’s aunt noticed quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and some conference between the brothers. The priest-monk explained that some things were missing from the box of supplies that they brought with them. He told her, ” I think this chrismation is definitely supposed to take place because the adversary is so busy. Everything we need, we do not have! (pause) so…...that is good.” All week long as we’ve been running around the house trying to find church shoes or forks, or the dog’s water dish, we’ve been repeating it, “Everything we need, we do not have!...so…..that is good.” It’s funny and yet absolutely true.
There’s a certain instantaneous annoyance that comes with not having something to hand. It’s that “arghhh” feeling coupled with a rising anger. It’s a very “in the moment” sensation and since I’ve experienced this multiple times this week, I’ve had occasion to note that if I can move beyond this passion, an entirely different feeling comes to mind. There’s a feeling of freedom and expansion. This is how it’s played out for me this week: I’m searching for some small item, say the bottle of oil I need for the crankcase of my industrial sewing machine, and I can’t find it. I feel the growing frustration and I become agitated—where is that bottle of oil? But then, if I step back, I look around and notice that I’m in a larger house, with better space for my family’s needs and I have all sorts of new amenities like regular heat (our old house was very drafty and cold) and working above ground (my previous workshop was in a basement), and I feel overwhelmed by thankfulness. So, the oil is missing—“so…that is good.” It has reminded me that the entire material world serves our merciful Lord. When I’m out of balance about the material world—needing too much stuff or having too much stuff or relying on too much stuff, then I’m out of balance spiritually. It’s a gentle reminder that the material world is in service, both to God and through our adoption as sons of God, to us. It’s a servant, not a master. And when it begins to feel as if it’s mastering us, then something’s wrong.
Once we’ve righted our material and spiritual wrongs, then we usually experience a lovely sense of contentment. We are at peace—with ourselves, our material world, and our God.
Contentment is all about letting go—and experiencing true freedom. It doesn’t mean we burn down our houses like the Dukhebhors, but it does mean that part of our spiritual discipline is a material discipline. We avoid over-consumption, we try to live lightly on the earth, we work hard to keep “stuff” at bay. We remind ourselves of our monastic brothers and sisters, who live extremely frugally and simply. This is the “norm” for us as Orthodox Christians, not wealth or possessions or things, but the reverse. Again, the material world serves us, we do not serve it.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a motivational book-on-tape—something I do from time to time as I find a few pearls of wisdom in this type of literature. The author, a Protestant minister and motivational speaker who lectured in many venues, related a story in which his wife joined him for one of his speaking tours, something she rarely did. She gave a talk to the women attending the seminar and during a question and answer period, one of the women in the audience asked her, “So, does your husband make you happy?”. Unbeknownst to the motivational speaker’s wife, he had quietly entered the back of the room and was waiting for her reply, fully expecting it to reflect well on him. His wife responded saying, “No, he doesn’t make me happy.” then after a long and tense pause, she finished with, “I realized years ago, that only I could control whether or not I was happy. My husband could be the best or worst husband in the world, but it was my decision whether or not I would be happy.” Now, as Orthodox Christians, we would prefer to substitute the word “contentment” for “happy”, but the idea is very similar.
Only we have ultimate control over our own contentment. Even if it does sound rather “Pollyanna”-ish, we do make up our minds to be either content or discontent. There’s no gray area when it comes to contentment—we either are or we aren’t and purposely deciding to be content is a great spiritual battle. One of our best weapons in fighting this battle, is reducing the clutter and confusion in our minds and our homes. It’s hard work, but worthy of St. Paul’s words, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
As I continue to sort and de-clutter and unpack, I’ll keep this image in front of me. Of St. Paul and a whole host of saints urging me on, towards materially less and yet wonderfully, miraculously, spiritually more.