Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Chapter in "Get Satisfied" from Simple Living America

Why Losing it All Meant Winning Much More
By Galen Warden

Around 1990 my husband succumbed to major depression and just stopped working. I had to support the eight of us—we had six young children. In the months that followed it became apparent that, without either a college degree or full-time work experience, I would not earn enough to support us sufficiently. So... we began to sell our belongings. We received food from a local church soup kitchen, and hand-me-downs for my older kids from neighbors, as I continued to look for work. Plus we began to look for a low-cost rental, awaiting our inevitable eviction. Picture a financial domino effect—complete with jumps, flips, and cascades. But even then I was certain that this period of our lives held its own lessons, and would always be remembered as a very meaningful journey for us.

As we sold our belongings and began to scale down our lives, I felt a sense of liberty I did not expect. We had already spent a fair amount of time without a T.V. because I could not bear to see my children sit longingly in front of toy commercials. Of course they watched it at friends' houses. I told them I didn't hate T.V., but I wanted their time at home to be spent doing, not wishing. We had a big roll of white butcher paper and plenty of crayons, markers, and paint. We had Legos and Lincoln Logs and blocks. We had guitars and tambourines and keyboards. My husband was a musician and I am an artist, so creative equipment was readily available to them. Fast forward—today they are all artists and musicians either for their jobs or as a hobby.

We enjoyed our creativity at home, but getting out of the house was important, too. The problem there, again, was that we could not afford the normal entertainments: movies, local carnivals or amusement parks. Instead, I discovered that one of the coolest things to do when you have no money is "window shop." I'd take my girls to a fancy store, like Bloomingdale’s, and we'd try on fur coats! Window shopping is excellent therapy and recreation, plus it's educational. So much can be learned by not purchasing a thing, or spending a dime, if you do it right.

It’s helpful to remember that shopping in the traditional sense is very different, and much more stressful. You have to select the right thing. Does it go with my other stuff? Is it appropriate for my personal style? Does it fit? Does it match? Can I afford it? Should I go for cheap or splurge? Plus, you have to limit yourself to only visiting stores where items likely to conform to your taste, needs, and budget would be found.

When you window shop all of this stress is eliminated! You can window shop in any store that will allow you in. Money is no object. So why not go to the most expensive stores? The style doesn’t have to suit your taste. Ponder stuff you’d never put in your home. Somebody loves it. When you window shop, you can admire every item, learning to find its own particular merits, even if it is not in your personal taste.

It’s really quite amazing when you consider the millions of items for sale and the millions of different people buying them. Ask yourself what might have been in the mind of the manufacturer. Why did they choose to make this item? They must have imagined the perfect customer for it. You can picture the most sophisticated, or the most vain person, needing to pamper themselves with items of pure luxury—completely unnecessary extravagances whose qualities, details, or ornamentations augment an everyday object, simply to make it appeal to their sense of entitlement. If someone has to have the very most expensive one, then certainly someone will figure out how to make one of those that expensive. Eye each item—whether a tea cup, a coat, or a jewel— and paint an imaginary portrait of the character that would have to have that one! Until you walk into a store with this as your only purpose, you cannot imagine how wonderfully entertaining this can be.

To add a sense of history, and often irony, don't forget antique stores! There you can, not only enjoy imagining who might pay $200 for a fountain pen, you can try to picture its humble origins at 25¢ in the stationary store in 1920. This adds a wonderful twist. Antique items may represent a new technology for their time—the very latest thing—and with the perspective of history your child recognizes that one day their own modern things will be out-dated curiosities also. Vintage clothing may show shades of modern styles, back around again. And vintage photos are the perfect window on families that may have been similar to your own ancestors. Look into their eyes and imagine what that day may have been like, having their photo taken after a long horse and buggy ride into town!

Window shopping is a healthy adventure for well-behaved children 6 - 12 years or a little older. They are still young enough to have their values shaped. To appreciate that everyone doesn’t have the same taste, and to recognize that stuff is just stuff, and that very little is essential stuff. Every item in every store merely has the purpose of providing revenue to those who present it. There is no need for you to buy it. However, many people feel compelled to buy things they really don’t need. It is amazing how items themselves are somehow infused with the spirit of those desperate to possess them. There is a strange satisfaction in conjuring up that weakness in your self, recognizing it for what it is, and then watching it evaporate. Your power to overcome the siren of an item that calls out, "owning me will improve you," is a wonderful skill to teach children, and to hold onto throughout life. You will own your things. They will not own you.

At this moment, having lost everything those many years ago, I can gratefully say that I can afford to give regularly to the charities of my choice, Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army, among others... understanding that it is often someone just like me, because once it was me, that loses everything and needs a hand for a while. I can also happily say that, although I have more stuff than I had at that time, none of it, not a single thing, has the power it once had to hurt me. The threat of losing your things is a painful, even a devastatingly painful, feeling. When fear strikes your heart at the thought of your beautiful things going away, they own you. You do not own them.

My primary goal through those difficult times was to fiercely guard the kids against any negative impact from our situation. I was determined that it would be an opportunity for better priorities and perspective. I could use this experience to instill a sense of self-worth in them that was totally unrelated to status. And to teach them empathy for others they would encounter in their futures. What a gift! We sang, we drew, we played, we window shopped. With the exception of my husband, who took a few years to get better, we worked to remain happy, playful people.

Since those days I've become a successful career woman and own my own home. The value of learning that “stuff is just stuff,” the liberty of having nothing to lose and reveling consciously in that freedom, is the richest reward that one could gain from the painful exorcism of losing it all.

My chapter also includes a poem, which I am posting separately.

From: Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough
October 1, 2007 ISBN 978-0974380681
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