Possessed by Possessions?

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2023  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash
Photo by Isaac Martin on Unsplash

Last January I walked out of a big store, leaving my potential purchases behind. I just couldn’t face standing behind 75 other people in order to buy two pairs of undies and a DVD of “Arsenic and Old Lace”. I decided to wait until the post-Christmas feeding frenzy ceased and stores returned to normal. The Customer Service counter was besieged by dozens of folks wishing to return or swap gifts, and the regular checkout lanes were packed with bargain hunters laden with electrical gadgets, clothes, household goods and toys. The tailback reached all the way through “Soft furnishings” and almost to “Home Storage Options.”

Britt Smith of AAP reported on Boxing Day: “Australians have been lumped with 19 million unwanted gifts this Christmas, but thrifty types are likely to turn their disappointment into an easy buck, a survey suggests. And the value of those less-than-desirable pressies is worth a predicted whopping half a billion dollars - money that was probably better off not spent.”

There’s something rather awful about that. The article goes on to say that most people will sell their unwanted gifts on E-bay or at garage sales. How did we get to this stage, where gifts are unwanted, and in such profusion that we sell them just to be rid of them? The news article jolted my memory back to when we were living overseas and working for a volunteer organisation.

Working in a third world country is a bit like being on a cruise ship: you meet people you would never have met in the ordinary course of events, and the shared experience makes a bond. We lived some years in Southern Africa and had friends from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. We became close to a group of Anglican nuns who ran a secondary school, and also made friends with people in the technical assistance delegation from Germany. The two groups came together at dinner parties at our house. The non-religious Peter F. liked the sisters, but did not understand their way of life.

One evening Peter said, "How can they be zo cheerful? They haff nothing, they are as poor as a kappelmaus. What a sad life."

Sister Jean overheard this and turned around and said with a smile "Peter, thank you for your concern but we have everything we need, plus good friends who invite us to dinner and conversation, what more would we want? We are totally free. If we had lots of worldly goods, we'd always be concerned about losing them to robbers or accident; we'd have to have insurance, which means we'd have to have money which means we'd have to find a source of money outside our present resources. We'd have to raise the school fees to provide more money, which means the poor girls who attend now would not be able to....you see where this is going, don't you?"

Peter huffed through his moustache and said he supposed she had a point, but I think he found it hard to accept that she was happy as she appeared.

A simpler life does free one from all sorts of worries and concerns. When we lived for six weeks in a rural area of Swaziland when we first arrived there, with a minimum of worldly goods. We had a tiny concrete floored house with a sink that provided cold water--some of the time--a tiny woodstove, a borrowed table and two chairs, a baby crib, three stretcher cots and three sleeping bags, a toilet and shower, a big plastic wash bucket, a big soup pot, a frying pan, a kerosene lamp, a few utensils and three tin plates. We shared the house with a baby, a toddler, and a local teacher who’d been assigned to the area but had no place to stay. The teacher became a friend, and honorary Auntie to the children for the rest of our time in Swaziland. Amazingly, we did not die of deprivation, we were not dirty, and we slept like babies every night. I would not wish to live out my life at that simple a level, but there's certainly something to be said for weaning ourselves away from the present consumer society where people shop as recreation for things they don't need and can't afford, or to give to other people who don’t want them.

I learned another lesson about possessions from an old man who did garden work in our neighbourhood. He was always barefoot and I offered him some shoes. He explained patiently that he could not afford to accept a gift of shoes. "If I have shoes I must buy socks. Then I must wash the socks and will need to buy more soap. Then one day the shoes will fall apart and I will not have money to buy new ones. My feet will be soft from many months of wearing socks and shoes. It will cause pain for weeks while my feet become tough again. So thank you very much, missus, but I do not want any shoes."

For the past few years we have been trying to be more responsible in gift matters, and give practical things and not too many of them. Every Christmas, everybody gets some books; that’s a constant in our family-- whatever the occasion, you get books. But as far as ‘the big present’, we try to make it practical and relevant. This year I gave my nature-loving niece a certificate that said she’d helped plant some coral on the Great Barrier Reef. For my sister who had a recent diagnosis of eye disease, a donation in her name to the Fred Hollows Foundation which saves eyesight in many countries. Our daughter usually gives things like World Vision certificates. I like the idea that somewhere in the Middle East there’s a lemon tree giving fruit in my name, or that deep in Somalia there are a pair of ducks providing saleable eggs to a nascent poultry entrepreneur.

My maternal grandmother used to say “Enough is as good as plenty”. I didn’t understand what that meant when I was 10, but it makes a lot of sense now.

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