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Stuff We Think We Need

Yesterday when I was in the shower, I was surprised to see the number of items on the

shelf had increased again. I took a count. Besides a bar of soap, there were ten plastic bottles and squeezable tubes of, well, you know, body wash, shampoos, conditioners, etc. I wondered how these things multiplied. Of course, I knew what happened. One of us saw a product displayed that might work better or make my skin or my hair happier, or some other outcome I would like. So we bought it, adding it to the collection of unfinished products already in our shower. It’s not just our house that has this problem. When staying overnight at our friends’ or family’s homes, I have observed this plague of plastic containers in the shower seems fairly common. What is going on?

Our refrigerator has a similar problem. It’s about double the size my parents’ refrigerator was a few decades back. When we come home from grocery shopping and getting the things we “need,” we open the refrigerator to put some of the cold or frozen items away. But look, the refrigerator is already full! The meat and cheese drawer is jammed. The shelves are full of three kinds of milk, juice drinks, sodas, and that great variety of food we already have. They are from out last several trips to the supermarket. What is wrong with this picture?

I am not against the wonderful variety of choices that American or western civilization has developed for us to enjoy. In some cases the variety does bless us with added health. We eat grapes from Peru and oranges from California, or Florida. We have five or six kinds of cheese, including one small package from Denmark. In each case, perhaps we thought, “This one might really be better.” Looking at the cleaning products crowding our hall closet, I wonder if we just fell for the fancy container that turns out to have the same familiar ingredients, but the label includes words like “advanced” or “improved.”

I wonder if we are living right. Have we given in to the sin of avarice, the desire to have more of everything, or at least more of the things that are available, that is, more than we need or more than we could possibly use. Maybe that’s part of the American dream. Is it? The pursuit of happiness? reports, “Back in the 90s, there were about 7,000 items in your average grocery store. That’s already a lot of stuff to choose from, but today, that number is as high as 50,000. That’s 50,000 choices, 50,000 yes or nos — from one trip to the grocery store.”

Researchers, too, have shown that having more and more choices actually makes life less satisfying, in part because we often have the feeling that we could be happier with the one we didn’t yet buy (whatever it is). That is only one of the down sides of “too much stuff.” We do give some money regularly to organizations so some children in far off places can occasionally get a new toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. That makes me feel good. But is it just a small band-aid on a wide wound? What if we really spent less money on this wide world of choices? Wouldn’t we have more resources to use for sharing God’s mercy in creative ways? Could we actually find a better way to live? Would we perhaps also be happier?

The writers of the Bible could hardly have imagined a place with forty-two choices of shampoo or coffee in one aisle. But I think Paul’s comment in Colossians 3:2 still applies: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (NRSV). I think I’m going to find my copy of Richard Foster’s book, Freedom of Simplicity. The next time I go shopping, perhaps I will ask “Do we need that?”

© 2021 Stanley Hagemeyer

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