“Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying. The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.” ~Elise Boulding, Norwegian-born, American Quaker sociologist and peace scholar
I wonder if you ever find yourself going through a similar thought process to the one I go through often in recent years when considering whether to make an object my possession. Do you ever find yourself, just as you are wishing you could buy something, or are about to buy something, or just after you’ve purchased an item, questioning, “What is it that makes me want to own this item? Why the need to possess it?” There’s a similar question I ask myself sometimes when pondering the consumption of certain foods. My thought process goes something like this: “I see that lovely confection with its rich, dark chocolate, the appealing sheen to its frosting encasement. And I can easily imagine what it tastes like because I have tasted plenty of similar decadent desserts in the past. And yet, even though I am not hungry, and even though, in my rational mind I know I don’t need or want the calories, I feel that I must taste and consume it.” In a parallel sense, why does it often not feel like enough to simply admire an object or to be glad of its existence and the existence of objects like it without then feeling a burning need to possess the item?
Here is a recent example. If you were a young child growing up in America in the 1980’s, as I was, it is likely that you are familiar with the “Book It” program that launched in 1984. I was surprised to learn, with a bit of research, that the program continues today. Schools enrolled in the program aim to promote a love of reading by giving out Book It pins to students. For every book reading goal met in a month, the child receives a star sticker on their Book It pin from their teacher. Once all the stars on the pin are covered with a star sticker, the child can go to Pizza Hut for a free personal pan pizza: ingenious marketing for Pizza Hut and fun for kids. Who knows how many pizzas I consumed as a result of achieving my Book It goals each month? Many of us first generation Book It kids have happy memories of the program. But why, when I recently discovered that Book It pins can be purchased online, did I not only feel joy at seeing one of the pins but also feel the immediate compulsion to purchase one or several: one for me and one for friends who grew up enjoying the program? I found myself reflecting just before adding the items to a cart, “Why do I need to purchase this? I have warm memories of this program without the pin, and does owning this pin make these memories any more real? What on earth am I going to do with the pin when it arrives?” Of course this example carries the added heft of consumption when you consider that even the Book It Program itself, at least on one level, is a corporate marketing ploy and involves food consumption.
In this season of giving and receiving, I am not suggesting that all possession and consumption should make us feel guilty or that we should deny ourselves the joy of a gift aptly and gladly chosen or a gift exuberantly received. But I have been finding it useful to call to my mind, whenever possible, this question, “Why do I need to possess this?” Or, “Why do I need to consume this?” It gives me enough pause for thought, enough distance from my automatic desire to make something my own, to redirect my energies away from spending and obtaining, to gratitude that the beautiful or useful or delicious entity exists. I realize often that it’s more the appreciation of the thing that matters than the having of the thing itself.
Now, here there might be eye rolls at the thought that the appreciation of a caramel-drizzled eclair can be as satisfying as the actual, ecstatic savoring of the eclair on the palate, and fair enough. Yet, it causes me no guilt to see and admire the eclair and to remember the taste of eclairs past or to be pleased with someone else’s enjoyment of the exquisite treat. And if eclairs and sweets are something you cannot give up and feel no need to, more power to you. Enjoy them. Perhaps employ my arguments instead to the purchasing of objects. Is the pleasure you derive from purchasing that item of clothing commensurate with the concern you will feel when you review your finances and know that you overspent? This is the query I’ve learned to put to myself when I’m tempted to buy clothing but have not budgeted for it. If I can make myself stop and reflect in this way, I am far more likely to return the item to the rack and to walk away feeling more victorious than deprived. In that one moment of reflectiveness, I have stepped outside the possession trap and chosen my personal values and my financial peace instead.
When was a time you walked away from purchasing something you wanted but did not need? How did you feel after you made the decision? As you make purchases for yourself or for your home, or as you indicate things you would like as gifts (if asked), take time to pause this month and to discipline yourself to ask, “What is it in me that makes me feel I need to own and possess this item? Do I really need to own it? Or am I just pleased to consider it, to admire it for its beauty, its nostalgic, transportive capacity, or its handiness? Can I be content that it exists in the world without the need to make it mine?” Spanish-born US philosopher George Santayana wrote, “I like to walk about among the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty.” While I do not espouse this ascetic refusal to live with any wealth or personal possessions, I full-heartedly enjoy the first portion of this statement and the general ethos of his idea. Can you, this month, satisfy yourself with “walk[ing] among the beautiful things that adorn the world” without personally obtaining them all and bringing too many of them home? There is freedom and relief and contentment when you realize you can.