“If you aren’t happy for what you already have, then what makes you think you will be happy with more?” Maddy Malhotra
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, I got an email from the International Rescue Committee, a group dedicated to helping people “whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and regain control of their future.” They were promoting “Hearts for Humanity,” a fundraiser which offered a choice of four Valentine gifts you could purchase to honor a loved one: Warm Blankets; A Year of School (for a girl); The Teddy Bear & Creativity Kit for young children, and Safe Passage.
The deal was you chose a gift, and a card would be sent to your Valentine notifying them what you had purchased in their name. It’s a nice way to share some love.
I selected the Safe Passage gift/card. The blurb for it caught my heart: After fleeing for their lives, refugees arrive to an unfamiliar place frightened, exhausted and in desperate need of basic services, including transportation and information … the IRC provides refugees with critical information on how to access medical care, asylum services, and what to do in case their family is separated. We also help to transport refugees safely to facilities such as hospitals or asylum centers.”
I thought if I was someone fleeing everything I’d ever known, hoping to survive the boat ride to a place foreign in both language and customs, with no home, no job, and no clue as to WTF would happen next, I’d be mighty glad to find some friendly face on the other end who would help explain the rudiments, get me medical assistance, maybe give me a ride.
So, I named my husband Ed, all-around good guy and Valentine-extraordinaire, as the person I wished to honor with my donation. Easy. But what did I want to type in the little “brief message” box provided? My typical Valentine’s card to Ed runs beyond brief, and usually includes some sentiment a tad more racy than I felt like sharing with the card-prep folks at the IRC.
You may think, being a writer, a brief message would be a piece of cake, but I continued to stare at that blank space, willing some coherent thought to materialize. Writer Revelation #1,923: Coherence is only the baseline—the barely acceptable, rock bottom limit—below which writers must not sink, or if we do sink then we must delete quickly or bury the evidence in some file with a name like Holiday Recipes 2005.
No, when faced with a blank page, what writers aspire to pen is something graceful, hopefully thought-provoking, occasionally humorous, and true. Above all, true.
After more gazing out the window, and fortified by a gin-and-tonic, I decided to focus on why I chose this gift of Safe Passage for Ed rather than a book or sweater or some other item we already have too many of and no place to store. The WHY made it all fall into place. I quickly typed:
One of the miracles of love is that it makes you more generous. We already have everything we need because we have each other, so this Valentine’s Day, I’m extending that love, sending it out like ripples over a pond, to those less fortunate.
What is Enough?
Love makes us generous. Teaches us what is enough. Enough is a good word to know. A life-enhancing concept. A planet-saving philosophy.
Stuff, on the other hand, just seems to make the folks with the most toys greedier for more. Two homes. Five homes. A personal jet and a helipad. A private island.
Personally, I think it’s bad manners to grab another $100 billion for yourself when other people are homeless, starving, and dying from lack of basic medical care. Forty percent of the world struggles to survive on less than $2.50 a day.
But if I’m honest, I know the Stuff Gene is shared to greater and lesser degrees by much of the developed world. Even in my own modest (by American standards) home, I often feel the walls closing in, squeezed tight by too much stuff. Why is it Ed and I have three coffee mugs crammed with pens, pencils, and markers on our partners’ desk when one would do? Are we expecting to sprout another dozen hands, become an ambidextrous stunt-writing team?
Speaking of coffee mugs, why do we have 27 of them hogging space in our kitchen cabinets? Are we anticipating a Fifties style coffee klatch—two dozen ladies in June Cleaver bouffant dresses and pearls, gathering for a gossip?
Ed and I are woefully short on extra homes, sports cars, and Cayman Island accounts, but we have more prints and posters than wall space to hang them, enough kitchenware to open a diner, and a pile of electronics dating back to the dawn of the digital age. If floppy disks, VCR players, or cassette recorders ever make a comeback, we’re ready.
We are two people … with eight suitcases, three laptops, three tablets. And about 800 sweaters.
The Trouble with Stuff
As a nation, we’ve come a long way from the folks who inhabited those quaint cabins you see at places like Plimoth Plantation. One, maybe two rooms. A couple of hooks for the family’s several items of clothing. A cooking pot. Today, many people pay an average $1,000 a year for self-storage lockers to hold the stuff they can’t cram in their homes. Annual self-storage revenue has been estimated at $38 billion. I suspect Goodwill is not returning my calls regarding what items they accept because they, like me, are drowning in stuff.
Stuff weighs us down. Not only do we have to pay for it, but once purchased we must maintain it: clean it, store it, repair it. And ultimately, dump or recycle it. This last is an increasingly serious issue. According to theworldcounts.com, we dump more than 2,000,000,000 tons of trash each year. And 99% of the stuff we buy gets tossed out in the first six months.
Stuff also begets stuff. When I was a kid, you saw a movie once, and maybe once again years later on some late night movie channel. Then the VHS tape was born. Now we could own hundreds of movies, but we had to buy a VCR player to view them, which later had to be replaced with a DVD player when movies went digital. All this movie-owning gave birth to the entertainment center—a bulky piece of furniture to house your TV, with multiple shelves for storing those tapes and discs. Now, everyone’s streaming and the contents of our entertainment centers are becoming the contents of our landfills.
Why all this acquisition?
Those “Lovely Intangibles”
Worth a replay: One of the miracles of love is that it makes you more generous. We already have everything we need because we have each other.
Love is more important than stuff. Stuff fills the space in our closets, our homes, our landfills. But loving and being loved fills the space in our hearts.
Thinking about this, I began jotting a list of more things I believe trump stuff in their importance. Things that, if we have them, give us the sense of enough.
*Health. As I watched Nancy Pelosi hold the floor in the House for 8+ hours on February 7, protesting a spending bill that did not protect Dreamers, I was inspired by her energy, her stamina. Seventy-seven years old and going strong! Health is life. I’ll take good health over a pile of riches and the stuff it buys any day.
*Peace of Mind/A Sense of Safety. This is a toughie right now, but imagine the weight of worries over the state of democracy, health care, DACA, gun violence, and the Trump/Kim Jong-un nuclear brinksmanship dropping away, freeing us up for joy. Stuff is heavy, cumbersome. Peace of mind is lightness, energy.
*A Sense of Connectedness. When we recall the good times, the best moments, it’s the faces of loved ones we see—family, friends, neighbors, folks from our community, people we’ve encountered in our travels. In his 2013 book Social, UCLA biobehavioral scientist Matthew Lieberman states that our need to connect with others is as vital as our need for food and water. Science has yet to make this same claim for a Mercedes, or a Williams-Sonoma Jura Giga X7 “café worthy” automatic coffee center ($8,999.95).
*A Rich Inner Life. To me, this means reading, listening to music, going to art galleries and museums, learning new things, reflecting on the long history of ideas, making connections between seemingly disparate events, dreaming.
In his excellent—and scary—futuristic YA novel Feed, M.T. Anderson paints a world where everyone’s head is wired for Internet. Originally touted as a “learning tool”—a world of valuable information piped right into your brain—the feed has largely become a stream of consumer ads. It’s the ultimate nightmare of losing our minds to stuff.
*Purposes/Goals Other Than Making Money. After we moved into our current home, I spent four summers digging over the bindweed-infested yard. I then terraced the wildly uneven terrain and put in garden beds. It was hot, often frustrating work, but in the end it was enormously satisfying to make a lovely space out of a junky lot. Much, maybe most, of what gives us satisfaction in life never earns a dime.
*Getting Out in Nature. Hiking the Quabbin Reservoir at Thanksgiving with my family, I was stunned almost to dizziness by the expanse of the sky, the richness of the air, the dazzling stretch of green. This huge, beautiful silence that is nature feeds the soul, heals the heart.
*Job Satisfaction. As Annie Dillard said, How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. The race for stuff puts a lot of pressure on us to choose a career path with the biggest paycheck. But if we’re going to spend half—or more—of our waking life doing something, maybe the real key to satisfaction is the work itself, or the folks we work with, or friendly workplace policies that accommodate our personal/family needs. A job that doesn’t demand we be literally on call 24/7.
*Self-respect. To trust in your own integrity, to be able to look yourself in the mirror every morning and like who you see, is a treasure beyond any price tag. Without it, you become someone like … Paul Manafort.
These are the “lovely intangibles” the lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) speaks of when he defends his decision to represent Kris Kringle in the 1947 Thanksgiving classic Miracle on 34th Street. The dialogue in this scene with his new love interest Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is too good to summarize, so I’ll just run it here:
Doris: [Kris is] a nice old man, and I admire your wanting to help him. But you’ve got to be realistic and face facts. You can’t throw your career away because of a sentimental whim.
Fred: But I’m not throwing my career away.
D: But if Haislip [top dog at the firm that’s threatened to fire him if he persists with the Kringle case] feels that way, so will every other law firm.
F: I’m sure they will. I’ll open my own office.
D: And what kind of cases will you get?
F: Probably a lot of people like Kris. That’s the only fun in law anyway. I promise, if you believe in me and have faith in me, everything will… [he pauses] You don’t have any faith in me, do you?
D: It’s not a question of faith. It’s just common sense.
F: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. It’s not just Kris on trial, it’s everything he stands for. Kindness, love and the other intangibles.
D: You talk like a child! It’s a realistic world. Those lovely intangibles aren’t worth much. You don’t get ahead that way.
F: What’s getting ahead? Evidently you and I have different definitions.
D: These last few days we’ve made some wonderful plans. Then you go on an idealistic binge. You give up your job and security, then expect me to be happy about it!
F: Yes, I guess I expected too much. Someday you’ll find your way of facing this realistic world doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover they’re the only things that are worthwhile.”
I can’t improve on that. It’s graceful. It’s thought-provoking. Above all, it is true.