EXCESS, HOARDING, & MEASURES OF EARTHLY SUCCESS
I’m not sure how I got here. As a young adult in my early twenties, I questioned the status symbols that Caribbean culture and the American church touted as markers of success—things like a luxury car, the biggest house I could afford, and expensive furnishings to occupy it. I examined these things one by one and after searching my innermost being, I was able to reject these objects as the necessary proof of my merit. I further came to the astonishing conclusion that I really didn’t value these particular things all that much in the first place. I am fine driving a Nissan, living in a comfortable house across the street from the sprawling country club estates, and having nice furniture that I’m not afraid to let my kids and company make use of.
This process of delineating the things I value from those things I had been programmed to value was a major triumph. Little did I know that I had barely scratched the surface of my deeply rooted entanglement with consumerism. It was lost on me that I still harbored ideas about success that fundamentally conflicted with GOD’s idea of success. I also missed the fact that I really hadn’t made any progress with confronting my addiction to having the material things that pose a significant temptation.
If you know me personally, then you know that I have an eye for retro 1930s-1950s styles and world fashion, especially African designs. Jewelry, socks, shoes, and headwraps easily catch my eye and have me reaching for my debit card without much thought. I’m often trying out the latest fitness craze, each time promising that the fit, athletic body I have always pined for is just one payment plan away. Pinterest and Instagram commercial algorithms are just more ways to convince me that my wants are actually needs. Don’t even get me started on the excessive conveniences of Amazon Prime. I have gotten a smiley box delivery almost daily for years now. These purchases have added up to thousands of dollars, some of which remain stowed away in closets, under my bed, or in unopened boxes that have become such permanent fixtures in my home that I routinely register them as part of our home decor.
I also love high-quality cuisine, whether it’s cooking with the best ingredients or eating at high-end restaurants. Travel is a passion I have barely begun to tap into. I haven’t done nearly as much of it as I would like to but the desire for it is never far from my mind. I have daydreams of living abroad, mastering the Portuguese language, touring Europe, taking hikes in New Zealand, and immersing myself in the many cultures of the African continent. Things like this take long-range planning, strategic allocation of funds, and a wise method for implementing said plans. I haven’t brought the contents of my imagination to bear with reality, in part, because I’m afraid of what executing all of this with our present reality will end up looking like.
Nothing is wrong with any of the things I enjoy. In fact, they are good and beautiful GOD-given desires. What’s wrong is the place that these things inhabit in my affections. They started out in the right place but over the past several years, they have crept into some of the spaces that only my reverence and worship for the Almighty should occupy. I sometimes want to pursue these things more than I want to obey GOD. I’m not even sure I know who I am without these treasures and that, my friends, strays dangerously into the territory of idolatry.
The bottom line is this: The call that I sense from GOD in this season of my life is in profound conflict with my material tastes. I enjoy particular luxuries, yet I crave a simpler life. I am compelled to serve the poor, elderly, sick, institutionalized, and displaced but it goes against the part of my nature that rejects poverty, filth, and lowliness—features of the life I was born into but swiftly brought out of. The alerts on my phone and the lure of social media have crippled me with new distractions and anxieties, yet I need to maintain a public persona for the sake of my writing career. I want recognition and accolades from the writing community, but I don’t want to deal with the crushing rejection, lackluster book sales, and empty promises from book promoters that come with the territory. I want less and I want more at the same time. You can’t get more conflicted than that.
This conflict within me has been building for years now, but it has recently come to a head. I looked around my house this week and felt nothing but disgust at the sheer excess and decadence I have surrounded myself with. There is entirely too much stuff occupying space in our house—on shelves, in closets, on tables, counters, and floors—collecting dust and all but forgotten. All of this waste and I still can’t seem to contain this insatiable appetite for more. I wonder if anything will ever be enough.
On top of this, I have had to face the fact that our children have become spoilt and entitled. Most of their wants are met before they can even fully articulate their request. They carry the expectation of children who have never had to go without something of necessity or make tough choices about how to meet those needs. Instead, they lose or damage things on the same day they get them. They don’t ask, they demand. There is no end to the complaints and the bottomless itemizing of more things that they want. The more we give them, the more they want. If I’m being honest, they sound an awful lot like their mother.
And so, I have spent the past few days coming to terms with this sad reality about myself. I have surveyed my material life and started actively scaling it down. This is a microcosm of what I now know we need to do with our entire lives.
Everything about our lives has become cluttered and haphazard. Our schedules are overcrowded with too many appointments, commitments, and activities. These things are obstructing our vision and interfering with our ability to hear clearly from the LORD. We have to make more room for Him. He shouldn’t be squeezed in uncomfortably between other things. He should occupy his own stratosphere within our lives. But this whole decluttering process needs to start with me because it all began with my preoccupation with busyness in the first place.
I imagine the Almighty pulling back the curtain, allowing me to glimpse the chasm that is separating us. I am devastated to find that the miniscule crack I imagined is actually a canyon, miles wide and deep enough to comfortably house a planet. Even as he reveals my hubris, His correction is gentle, kind, even comforting. This new conviction humbles and steadies me. He will not allow me to continue on persuaded of my own rightness. I won’t pretend it feels good but it’s such a tremendous mercy that He would take the time and effort to wake me up in this way.
I have to let go completely of this idea that success looks like a particular work schedule or title. I have to let go of the need for my writing to be praised and recognized by the writing community. It’s probably ok to continue to desire this but it can’t be the fuel that drives me to continue writing. Furthermore, I have to let go of the idea that my importance rests in my accomplishments. I have to reign in my obsession with fashion. This is a particularly difficult one because it’s a natural part of my self-expression and personality. I keep asking myself, why would the LORD make me a person who desires these things only to tell me I need to scale it back in order to discover His radically different ideas about flourishing and abundance? I have no idea. All I know is, that my desires are ruling over me right now and this is not ok with GOD.
I think humans can’t help but distort the beauty of GOD’s glory in us. We get arrogant, self-assured, righteously indignant, or just comfortable. We lose sight of His glory and begin to seek our own. The effectiveness of the distortion rests in its subtlety. I simply can’t continue this tendency to buy whatever looks good to me without at least glancing at the price tag. It’s not healthy to push myself to work just so I can support collecting stores of nice things that I will hardly ever have the time to wear.
I think my life needs to be light enough to bear the burdens of others who might need my resources. I need to be ready to answer if the LORD calls me or us to missions, either nationally or abroad. I need to learn how to be just as satisfied with the things of natural beauty that the LORD has freely given us as I am with manufactured things. Gardening has helped me with this tremendously. The wonder of what good dirt and a diligent gardener can produce never ceases to amaze me. When you routinely grow things from seed and turn blank pages into meaningful stories, you begin to realize how much you have been missing out on by not participating in life this way.
I am not railing against all wealth, influence, and popularity. I believe some (though very few) Christians are called to walk this particular version of the narrow way. I am not. Memories of poverty and the strident nature of the American immigrant live in my marrow and will probably never fully die. It’s too easy for me to find comfort in wealth, perhaps not the numeric figures but what those dollars can afford me. I can reassure myself that I have arrived because I am surrounded by all of these possessions that I value, and I end up treating GOD like an ornamental pillow with a choice seat on my sectional. I can’t live that way anymore. It’s time for me to fully rely on GOD as my joy and my portion. He knows what I truly need and how much beyond that I can handle before straying onto the wide road to destruction.
Stay Thoughtful, Friends.