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In Defense of Stuff

By Heidi Jost

I can’t believe I’m writing this: I, who have painted and stalked the war path against STUFF.

I love, love, love pictures of sparse, white expanses framing single chairs with well-draped blankets. I can feel my soul rise and float peacefully while I meditate on these pictures. My white walls are more a grunge shade with interesting “bumps and dents” texture. My blankets are literally throw blankets… all over the floor. Single chairs are non-options in this house of seven. When we watch a movie or read a story, we need two couches. Golly, my floating soul of peace hates being yanked down by these reality checks.

I salivate over blog posts by other moms about how much more streamlined their lives are after they swept a lot of material possessions out the door. I have armed myself with the argument “less is more,” wielding it like a righteous torch in the cluttered darkness.

Our North American experience of SO. MUCH. STUFF. is unprecedented in history. Which means basically nothing because every era of history has something in it that has, to some degree, never been known or done before. So like everybody else who’s ever lived, we are dealing with new challenges here. Let me ask a couple of questions to wade through the material pileup.

  1. Are things good or bad?

I can answer this the complicated way by pointing out various philosophies that have branded physical, material things as evil or dark, and spiritual things as good or light. I can casually toss some polysyllables your way to help you see that this idea of things being the enemy of the greater good is really not new. (And also, to preen my feathers of knowledge. All two of them.) Manichaeanism, Docetism, Gnosticism, Marcionism. A bunch of people have held these ideas over the years in order to make sense of our messy world.

Or I can refer you to books with philosophy concepts about stuff that I actually understand. When I read “The Berenstain Bears and The Messy Room” to my kids, and I get to the part where Mama Bear bursts into the cubs’ room with a huge box and an ominous, ugly expression, my kids nod, “Oh, yep, that looks familiar.”

In the battle against things, motives matter most. Mama Bear got fed up with the bother of craft glue and sharp toys underfoot and burial-by-overstuffed-closet episodes. She was mad at her cubs for eating up her time and injuring her feet by being sloppy with their things. Was she bent on building better relationships when she stormed into their room and started chucking all their stuff in that giant box? Umm, doubtful.

I read about how some moms quietly stash away their kids’ surplus toys in bags for donating, justifying it on the basis that “they have so much, they’ll never notice.” Or, “my house, my call.” I’ve done this. My kids notice 75% of what goes missing. It’s really not our right to strong-arm other people’s possessions out of the house, even if they are little people’s.

Enter Papa Bear. He hears everyone bellowing from the house and hurries in to see what’s the trouble. He listens carefully to both sides: he hears how tired Mama is after cleaning up the rest of the house, to have to also deal with the cubs’ messy belongings. He also hears how much the cubs treasure some of those things, even though they haven’t done a stellar job at taking care of them. So he comes up with a solution to satisfy everyone. He and Mama team up to teach the cubs good stewardship: he builds boxes and pegboards, and Mama shows Brother and Sister how to properly store and care for their treasures. And the cubs learn to sort through their own things and figure out what is worth keeping, and what has already been thoroughly enjoyed and can be retired from use.

  1. Is minimizing stuff an intrinsically good thing?

You could take away all my things except my Ipad, and my kids would tell you that I’d probably still regularly not listen to them or look in their eyes with that Ipad around to distract me. We can allow any thing to distract us from what’s truly important. Number doesn’t matter. I could dejunk our house, allowing each of my kids to keep perhaps five favourite toys, but is that the surefire equation for happiness and harmony for all of us? I have only to look as far as the Berenstain Bears for an answer.

It is true that Brother and Sister Bear messiness can drive up relational tension and stress. It’s also true that Mama Bear dejunking can drive up relational tension and stress.

Jesse is the major source of material inflow into our home. He loves things. He loves us even more. So he combines the two loves by buying us things that feed our interests and bring us pleasure. Our eleven year old engineer son has stacks of books on history, aeronautics, Lego mechanics, zoology, science, physics. Jesse bought him all those books, and our boy eats them up. Our eight year old daughter draws, colors, makes crafts, plays house with toy animals and people. She has bins of supplies for all these activities in her room and breaks them out often to do fun stuff with her little brothers. Jesse bought them all for her. This morning, our freshly minted six year old opened a tall pile of gifts for his birthday… each handpicked by Jesse, who always has an eye out for sales and a memory for his kids’ interests. You should have seen my son’s glee as he tore through the wrapping paper. Our three year old son adores Lightning McQueen, Planes, and Paw Patrol. Guess who makes his day on a regular basis with items that feature these movie characters? Even our nine month old son gets Daddy-love in the form of a gazillion hugs and kisses… and also, recently, several new teething trinkets to soothe his gums.

And me? Every holiday, birthday, anniversary, and umpteen times in between those, I am the rolling-in-it beneficiary of more gifts than I could ever count: new faucets replacing broken ones, better kitchen utensils, a fresh broom for the one the kids stepped on and mangled, nifty handyman repairs all over the house, a load of wood chips for my garden, freezers brimming with food, movies to tickle that BBC spot I have a weakness for, books to improve my mind by extensive reading adventures in new worlds, audio books, card-making supplies, a storage room, a guest room, another bathroom, shelves put up, nights off-duty, and mornings to sleep in. I have barely scratched the surface of his giving. And this is also a gift: for all his buying, Jesse really likes sorting through and getting rid of stuff. He’s awesome at organizing and dislikes clutter. He’s cleaned the house more times than I can count.

Best of all, like Papa Bear, he keeps the most important thing in mind: building better relationships.

I cling like a miser to my minimalist leanings, and often find that along with stuff, I am tossing my relationships right out the door of our house. I tend to prioritize fewer things over my people.

I’m not saying that we a) should get rid of most material possessions in order to be happy and whole, nor b) that we should indiscriminately embrace stuff because that’s the only way our relationships will be healthy. Nope.

I’m saying: weigh your motives along with that black trash bag full of stuff. Talk to your people and find out what’s important to them. We only get to take love out of this world with us; we only get to leave love in the world behind us. Stuff is merely a tool for showing love. Use it well. And if necessary, build a toybox.





  • Carl Gray

    Wow, that was just marvelous and so well though out. Thank you, Heidi, for sharing this with us. This discussion is one I have had with so many families and it usually comes down on the side of, “stuff is bad; we have too much; peace comes with having nothing, so we’re getting rid of stuff, even stuff certain children care deeply for, maybe then the attitudes or our children will change.”

    I have pleaded with parents to see past the “stuff” and focus on the attitudes about the stuff. The children may be fighting over toys, so is the solution to get rid of the toy? Perhaps temporarily, to help them think about it for awhile. But what you really need to deal with is the heart attitude. If they have no toys to fight over, that would be good, right? Well, except that then God would have no opportunity to teach them how to deal with their possessions wisely, learning to enjoy the good gifts and use them for good.

    We tend to focus on anything but the person as the source of the problem, when the real problem is right there in those little hearts and the stuff is the perfect object lesson for dealing with that. Then there is the attitude of the parents. Mom feels “crowded” because the living room is filled with stuff, the Lego space ship which keeps losing pieces to step on, books scattered about, play dress-up clothes, homemade swords, etc. Then things finally go over the top when the children all work together to build a fort out of dining room chairs and blankets, which is well outfitted with all the things they can think of to go inside. Dad comes home and can’t even get to his favorite easy chair to read or watch TV and so he gets grumpy. So the parents grumble at the kids to clean up the mess. Now who has the attitude problem?

    I have seen this scenario play out so many times and it hurts me to see the bad attitudes on both sides, simply because the adults have forgotten the joys of being a child, the spontaneous, creative play that is helping to prepare them for when “playing house” will no longer be play, but the real thing. It hurts my heart to see parents who covet minimalism so much that they let it get in the way of a happy home.

    My home was never what you would call tidy. In fact, to this day my childhood home is so filled with enough “stuff” to drive a Shaker into an OCD fit. It looks nothing like the modern homes with tidy white walls with nothing on them but a few choice framed family photos, tastefully decorated with a few items on shelves or end tables so as to not look too sparse. Our home has rows and rows of bookshelves in every room, none too tidy because books are always circulating. It has an eclectic variety of items on the walls from photos to paintings, wood burned scripture plaques made in VBS 40+ years ago, such that barely a square foot of wall space can be seen. We have a wasp’s nest hanging from a corner (ref. Wives and Daughters). We have containers of interesting and pretty rocks collected over 50 years, enough antique glassware covering every horizontal surface to resemble a second-hand shop.

    Although the quantity of “stuff” has increased over the years, this is largely the way it was when we were children and we came to love and cherish our home of stuff because everything in it, though perhaps having no intrinsic practical purpose, had some connection to people, relationships, memorable events (I can remember finding the at pretty quartz crystal or fool’s gold on vacation in British Columbia or rescuing the wasp’s nest from the woods). The books were filled with things to learn or just to enjoy. The antique glassware adorned the room like jewelry and made us feel “rich” compared to our friends whose homes contained only things that served some practical purpose. I am grateful for a very wise mother who, although she too felt “crowded” in our small rooms, recognized that developing relationships, not only with her children but with friends and neighbors who felt free to drop in any time because that’s what our home was about, and through those relationships teaching Christlike character and attitudes.

    As you can tell, this is something very near and dear to my heart. So I very much appreciate your willingness to be honest and recognize this trend toward heartless minimalism that is hurting relationships and covering up for the real problems that we all have when we cling to strongly to our “things.” Sorry to take over your blog with a blog of my own, but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about and couldn’t stop writing about my thoughts once I got going. Hopefully it will provide further food for thought.

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