I never realized how quietly the acquisitive consumerist values of a capitalist economy had taken up residence in my heart and soul until I was invited by events in my life to reexamine them.
We all remember Jesus’ answer to the rich young man who wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Having assured Jesus that he had kept all of the 10 commandments from his youth, Jesus said: “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Lest we miss the point of the story, the gospel writer adds these words: “But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.“ I’ve heard that story in church and Bible studies all my life, and I never identified with the rich young man. But the process of “letting go” and downsizing helped me learn how much I had in common with him.
Just after the joyous occasion of our only daughter’s wedding, my husband and I visited a new doctor for a consultation about some symptoms we didn’t understand and received the terrible news that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It took me months of mourning before I could begin to process what this meant. I was in a long-awaited year-long sabbatical from my teaching at Union Seminary—hoping to write the main text of a new book. But now it seemed that what was required was an emergency action to prepare for the inevitable progress of the disease.
I was overwhelmed with grief, and sadness, and fear, and anxiety. My husband, whose whole life has been devoted to what he could achieve with his great intellect, faced his own demons. By the late fall of that year we both agreed that we could no longer stay in the large house we had built and lived in since we moved to Richmond in 1995. This unleashed a series of experiences that I did not anticipate.
My realtor helped me to see that during the years of paying for college tuition and a big wedding we’d let some things slide around the house that needed to be repaired and restored before listing our property. At the same time, he mentioned that the best sales happened when houses were professionally staged and that this would require me to get a lot of our stuff out of the house. It all felt overwhelming. And we still hadn’t really figured out where we would go next even if we succeeded in selling our house. Eventually that answer was revealed to us. We found out about a new neighborhood not far away where we could build a much smaller home that would be handicapped accessible—a space where we hoped I could continue to care for Brian.
That is when the hard spiritual work began. My realtor gave me a deadline by which to complete all necessary repairs and removal of stuff so that he could officially list the house. Brian couldn’t help me with any of this ( he was mostly living in an easy chair in our bedroom). I looked around that huge (too huge) house and started with the thought that all those possessions were very valuable, and I needed to be sure to sell them for what they were worth.
Boy did I have some big surprises in store! The furniture, furnishings, china, piano, pool table, and so many other things I remembered paying a fortune for were either worth pennies on the dollar or were worthless because no one wanted them. As the days ticked down towards the realtor’s deadline, I realized that I had to be willing to let everything go for nothing or even be willing to pay someone to take my things. I found myself spending money at a pace that made me terrified (on the repairs and upgrades to the house) at the same time I was realizing that everything I spent years accumulating and paying for needed to be given away as quickly as possible, and the whole experience left me feeling anxious and afraid..
Because this all happened in a condensed period of two or three months, the feelings and thoughts that were bubbling up hit me like a gut punch. I began to realize with sadness how much of my time and energy had been devoted to building up a kind of false security anchored in a bank account and the accumulation of possessions. I became aware of just how much my attention was enslaved to these possessions. And then came crashing in an overwhelming sense of the futility of it all. Had it been worthwhile? How would things have been different if I had consciously chosen thirty years ago to resist the temptations of consumerism?
Fortunately, that sense of remorse and self-critique is not the end of the story. After our house sold, we lived for a couple of months in a long-term stay hotel while our new house was being built. During that time, I began to feel a sense of joy and freedom I hadn’t had for a long time. Could it be that what at first seemed a series of forced sacrifices was actually a liberation? Could it be that what I had thought I possessed and controlled actually possessed and controlled me? The paradox was surprising to me—a revelation.
I am still processing this experience. I vowed not to get caught up in the cycle of accumulation again. But the old habits are hard to break. Still, the blessing of these experiences was the opportunity to learn more deeply about the folly of putting my trust in money and things and to get a glimpse—if only fleeting—of the kind of freedom God wants to give me if I let go long enough to open my hands and receive it.
Dawn DeVries is Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Along with her family, Dawn has been part of GPPC long enough to have made mac & cheese for some of our current college students when they were in elementary school.