Releasing the obsession with possession is a me-hugging idea

churchill-giving-quote1Pope Francis’s latest tough-love sting was against people who are too wrapped up in consumerism, at the cost of our spiritual individual and collective lives.

We live in a world that is always more artificial, in a culture of ‘making,’ of ‘profit,’ where without realizing it, we exclude God from our horizon…
Often today, giving freely is not part of daily life, where everything can be bought and sold, where everything is calculated and measured — Pope Francis, March 5, 2014
Instead of keeping balance sheets in the heart, he tells us that the best way to give is to not expect anything in return.  This way, he said, people can free themselves “from the obsession of possession, from the fear of losing what we own, from the sadness of those who do not want to share their well-being with others.”

He tells us that the downside of not just having stuff, but loving our stuff, costs more than cash or credit because it’s taxed with our peace of mind.  Once you have stuff, you invite fear–fear of losing it, fear of having it taken.  We have to be on alert and vigilant.  Maybe even anxious.  Perhaps that’s why so many people think back nostalgically to times when they had nothing, but were happy.  I remember when my husband and I were just married, we had very little.  We were leaving for the day shortly after moving into our first place, and I asked him, “Shouldn’t we lock the door?”  To which he responded, “Nah, if a robber came in, he’d probably feel sorry for us and leave us a buck.”

I got no lock on the door
That’s no way to be
They can steal the rug from the floor
That’s OK with me
Cause the things that I prize
Like the stars in the skies
All are free!
–I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin, George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess

So excessive attachment to our stuff causes us to be fearful.  Pope Francis also talks about the sadness obsession with possession brings, because being preoccupied with our stuff cuts us off from others.  We become territorial.  We develop a “what’s mine is mine” mentality, and to protect what’s mine, like every toddler, we become little watchdogs to prevent others from getting too close.  It’s a zero-sum game.   If they get, I lose.

Well, actually, some say it’s not a zero-sum game.   When I share or when I give, I don’t lose.  I gain.  Who says so?  Well, the Bible for one, which instructs us to give our first one-tenth to God.  And what does that do?  It makes us prosper.  It makes US prosperous.  And this is not just a woo-woo idea by a New Age author or a biblical scholar.  George Clason says in the classic prosperity book, The Richest Man in Babylon.  Modern-day financial guru David Bach teaches the same in his blog:

This notion—that the more we give back to others, the more comes back to us—is not simply a religious doctrine; it is virtually a law of nature. If you are looking to attract more wealth and happiness into your life, the fastest way I know how is to give more.

He said it–it is a law of nature.  We are hard-wired to share.  It makes us feel good, and somehow a flow is generated by giving that acts like a boomerang–it all comes back to us with more.   Obsession with stuff=sad; Sharing=glad!    Plus, a side benefit of letting go of obsession with possession is that by buying less, you are minimizing the impact of all this stuff on our air, land, and water.

In short, sharing, giving, and anti-consumerism may sound like a tree-hugging idea, but it is really a me-hugging idea.

How do we know if we are obsessed with our stuff?   Good question.  Richard Foster, in his book Freedom of Simplicity, offers a simple way to find out.   He says to start by just giving something away.   Not that ugly shirt you got for Christmas.  Give away your favorite shirt.   Just for the fun of it.  Examine your feelings when you do.     Frankly, as for me, way too often when I think about releasing many of my own possessions I feel exactly like that young man in the New Testament that turned away sad after Jesus proposed to him that his possessions may be coming between him and his spiritual yearnings.   Like him, I’ve already flunked the entrance exam.

We have, for the past several decades, established the paradigm that progress is measured in GDP.  Outward upward mobility is more important than inward upward mobility.   But we are seeing that there is a hangover that comes with the addiction to stuff.  We are seeing many symptoms of a sick society, and it’s nothing a little more sharing, a little less hoarding couldn’t cure.

I remember a book I read in grammar school about a dad who gave his son and daughter each their own garden to tend.  Each child started with the same size plot of land and the same number of flower seeds.  Both gardens grew and flourished.   One day the boy decided to cut some flowers for his teacher; his sister didn’t want to deprive herself of the beautiful blooms she had cultivated.  One day the boy decided to cut some flowers for the elderly neighbor; again, the sister didn’t want to share the flowers–she was enjoying them too much.  The boy continued to cut his flowers and give them away; the girl continued to keep them for herself.

Anyone who knows anything about gardening knows exactly what happened.  The boys garden soon was prolific in its blooms–because every flower cut yielded at least two more.  The girl’s garden unfortunately just went to seed and languished.   The moral of the story if obvious.  Who had the prettiest garden now?

Some people, proponents of the gift economy like Charles Eisenstein, are suggesting that maybe we see that this story is not just a parable about a family garden–but perhaps the concepts are true on a global scale.  Perhaps we dismantle some of the economic dogmas that are proving to be counter-productive, such as the idea that hoarding money–when our brothers are in need and when our resources are being decimated–might bite us in the butt very soon.  Maybe we have to redefine progress on an individual level, and then scale that up to local and global models of economic development.

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.  –C.S. Lewis

We have a pope! Ring the bells that still can ring…


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

How I LOVE that lyric from Anthem by Leonard Cohen.

On March 13, I was sitting in my living room proofing a report that was due to a client.  My husband burst out of his home office, looking for me.  “I hear the bells!  Do you hear the bells?”  Thinking he was going a little daft, I feared for a moment, but then got it…  the bells!  The bells of St. Augustine, the Catholic church at the bottom of my street.  The bells I catch at 8:45 every morning when walking Nessie.   Those bells ring at 8:45 every morning, summoning people to 9:00 Mass.

But it wasn’t 8:45.   It was in the afternoon.  And all of a sudden I remembered how the bells rang when Pope Benedict was elected.  So, this meant there was a new pope!  Now, my husband isn’t even Catholic, and for that matter, neither am I.  But I have certainly have brought my Catholic heritage into my life with no apologies.

So the bells were ringing, and with that, I was searching  Sure enough, habemus papum!  We have a pope!  And a simple Pope at that!   He cooks his own meals.  Eschews the fancy cardinal digs for a small apartment.  Rides the bus instead of taking a limousine.

CNN made good work of talking about this, how Pope Francis is a man of firsts–first non-European pope; the first Jesuit pope; first to choose the name of Francis, first to petition his flock to pray for him before he prayed for them.

Then, of course, the backlash.   Maybe he wasn’t so perfect after all.  Maybe he hadn’t done enough.  He should have done more to free and protect Argentinian Jesuits during the Dark War.  He didn’t back gay marriage.

When I started reading all this stuff about how “imperfect” Pope Francis is, I remembered Leonard Cohen’s lyric.  I remembered Dorothy Day who had an abortion, who was divorced.  I thought about the former party animal St. Augustine.   And then, what about Victor Hugo’s inspirational Jean Valjean–a thief, turned prisoner, turned ex-con, turned man of God.

I recently watched a Youtube video in which one of Dorothy Day’s commentator’s said that the meaning behind Dorothy Day’s famous quote:  “Don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed so easily”  is that designating her a saint lets us all off the hook.  If we expect saints to be perfect, we don’t have to strive for sainthood, because we’ve already “broken the seal” of sinfulness.  Kind of like when you abandon a diet after succumbing to pint of Cherries Garcia ice cream.  Well, guess what.  Yes, we’ve all broken the seal of sinfulness by virtue of being born.

But accepting that we, as well as all the saints, have inherited this original sin offers us hope.   Because all we have to do is accept God’s grace and take up the cross.  Anyone can do this!  We aren’t that special!  But paradoxically, we ARE that special.   We are special because we have cracks–not because we are perfect.  Our cracks are the peephole to God’s grace, and the way for the light to shine on others.

So when some people bash Pope Francis, I just want to say, “He’s not perfect.  Duh.  But he has lived among the poor.  He does not dismiss them.  He has washed the feet of AIDS patients.  He does not dismiss them.”  And as pope, it seems he will not be dismissing the imprisoned on Maundy Thursday, when he will go to a minor’s prison outside Rome instead of St. Peter’s Basilica, where he will wash of the feet of young offenders,

If he can stay true to himself, it will be a wonderful thing for the people, for the Church, and for the world at large.  If he can continue to perform these simple yet profound acts of humility and love for all of humanity, warts and all, he will shine a light on what we all wish a Christ-follower and Church leader to be.  And he will shine a light on the path that we can all follow.