Why Do We Have So Much Stuff? Unpacking Materialism, Spirituality, and Cardboard Boxes

         My winter break went as well as you might expect for someone living through a global pandemic. I caught up on a lot of work, ousted four troublesome wisdom teeth, and suffered through the barrage of Photos notifications and Snapchat memories reminding me that, this time last year, I had been climbing mountains and studying unfamiliar animals in New Zealand.

         After nine months of COVID-induced solitude, my college friends and I made the decision to move back to Atlanta for the spring semester, which meant that my break concluded in the same way it had a year ago- with me, twitching from caffeine and stress, hastily packing up my belongings at 2 am the night before I left. Except this time, instead of a single suitcase and a backpack, I found my stuff filling five cardboard boxes, three linen bags, an entire laundry hamper, and countless grocery totes. Upon arriving at school and beginning to unpack, I found that my friends were facing the same overwhelming question that had been haunting me since my return home last March: Why on earth do we have so much STUFF?

         Whatever playlist I was listening to while I unpacked my boxes kept repeating the same song, mocking me as I filled up my wardrobe and my desk drawers and stuffed anything extra under the bed. It was one of those “Pumped Up Kicks”-esque tunes, its catchy, upbeat melody overwhelming the cynical lyrics. The refrain went like this:

“And I opened up my heart and found a spiritual void
This is a spiritual world, I’m a material boy”

         The song in question was “Material Boy,” a recent release from the indie band Sir Sly, and the more I unpacked, the more I found their appraisal of our world astonishingly generous. After all, only three decades ago Madonna felt perfectly at home in her material world, and I wouldn’t say that humanity has made much headway in the spiritual department since 1984. If our world is so spiritual, then why was I bothering with boxes and boxes of stuff, especially when I’d been perfectly happy living out of a suitcase a mere 12 months ago? The dichotomy nagged at me.

         When I was in the tenth grade, my English teacher made us read some truly dreadful poetry, compliments of the 17th-century Puritans. One poem which shall dwell in my mind for all eternity was “Verses upon the Burning of our House,” in which poet Anne Bradstreet thanks God for burning her house and all of her possessions because it brought her closer to her spirituality. Here are a few lines, so you can suffer, too:

“There‘s wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.”

         The Puritans were notorious for shunning materialism, and, even as our Western world has embraced capitalism and material wealth, this villainization of the material has persisted. Series like Schitt’s Creek and Bojack Horseman make it seem as though we have to lose everything in order to peel away at our true character, blaming the material for our ignorance and apathy. And while I agree that a person entirely obsessed with the material will inevitably face Sir Sly’s spiritual void, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the material and the spiritual elements of my world.

         As I unpacked, I considered every item, asking myself if I could theoretically live without it. The answer, of course, was always yes- three months abroad taught me that much. Even so, every little thing seemed imbued with a sort of sacredness as I pulled it from its nest of packing paper and cardboard. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t seen most of it for a year, but my stuff- my material- seemed suddenly spiritual. There were bits of my past, my memories and emotions, connected to the most mundane objects, and being surrounded by them made me feel as though I’d rediscovered some lost part of myself.

         Maybe Sir Sly was right in judging our world a spiritual one. Our spirits are not just grounded to our flesh and bones, but also to the material with which we construct ourselves. Of course, we can get lost in drugs and money and an Amazon box filled with 144 Mardi Gras beads (don’t even ask), but taking time to appreciate the things we truly value can offer us an escape. Sitting in my room, the afternoon sun illuminating my desk and its many knick-knacks, I feel more like myself than I have in a long time. A bird sitting in the tree outside my window surveys my constellation-patterned bedspread with mild curiosity. The city hums. The void is filled.

Words + Photos by Audrey Dods

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