Column: Investing in self and soul, not stuff

I want to share a shopping experience that made me aware of many things. I was in a large national chain in an urban area. It was mid-afternoon. The store, on entry, was stuffed with items. The rows were hard to navigate with so much product almost blocking the aisles. The presentation was overwhelming: pillows stacked on the highest shelf, jars of every description, chairs covering the floor wood, metal, soft pillow white. Plastic plants of all kinds are jammed into sections resembling a jungle. There were pots and pans on various shelves. As I pushed my basket, I began to feel claustrophobic.

The experience became even more intense at the checkout. All the time you were waiting to pay for your items, the consumer was led through a maze that had items on the right and left, more stuff to attract your desire. Unrelenting merchandising to the last moment. My spiritual self began to ache inside me; I was adrift in things, surrounded by consumers, anxious to pay for the selected items. What were people buying? As I was observing, it looked to me that the items were not essential. The things being bought were replacement items that were more daring, colorful, cleaner, and part of some must-have current cultural trends. It struck me that the lives of the consumers were trying to fill a void in consumer lives. Obviously, the items being purchased were not necessities, but “stuff”, jammed into their lives.

How much have things become the aim of our life? Emerson, in 1846, wrote a poem ( Ode, inscribed to William H. Channing) that has an often quoted line. “Things are in the saddle”. This was just as industrialization was underway in the United States. He was forward-looking in his comments. We are given a choice of the things we stuff our lives with. These things come with the subtext of “Selling.” It is difficult today to go anywhere where there is some advertisement extolling our needs. On my phone, on social media, at the gym, pumping gas, and even at my doctor’s office. This selling and buying of things takes up much of our waking moments in the current culture. Where are we going? What is necessary to live? How have things gotten to rule us? Is it true, as Emerson says, “Things are in the saddle”?

On the spiritual side, things are not the end of our lives. The end of our life is to learn to love, to see others, and to see the transcendent values in our lives. Things are not bad or good; they are in existence to help us reach that end. Our misplaced desire makes things a powerful magnet and holds our soul’s growth back. If our life is only about STUFF, we have missed the message. Many feel their whole worth is bound up by what they own, A fancy car, jewelry, or the neighborhood they live in. Many do not realize that when we are born, we are somebody; we are a child of God. God, with his love and grace, will provide all you need. Things, honors, and investments do not enhance our souls. The only thing the soul needs is love it alone operates with the grace given. We must share that love with our family, community, and workplace. love makes us a whole being. It is the abundance Jesus promises if we operate that love of God and others, ourselves included.

I can only tell you my own experiences as a Chaplain; many of the people I have assisted in dying get to know this simple truth just before they die. Nothing goes with us: honors, money, things; we leave this world as we enter it. What we take with us is the love we have given and the love we have received. All those things I saw in the store are not to blame. If people find them more important to their lives than the people around them, their children, their husbands, their communities, and perhaps most importantly, themselves. Do they really need these items for life? Or are these taking the place of the ability to love your life, to accept who you are, and to embrace your mortal life as a tool to help you into the eternal? Make time for prayer, seeing the beauty in this world, and experiencing a child’s love. So much is given to us besides things. I felt like I was suffocating as I left the store. I was saddened by the multiple shoppers waiting to check out that they did not or could not understand that things do not make us better humans. Love alone allows us to grow as human persons.

I leave you with the quote from St. Mark 8:34-38. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”


Kathleen Carlton Johnson, Ph.D., is a hospice chaplain.


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