During their recent Thanksgiving vacation, our two children got so bored that they tackled something we can seldom get them to do:
On the day before Thanksgiving, from morning until dusk, our 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son cleaned their rooms.
Driven by sibling rivalry, they tried to outdo each other in pitching things they no longer wanted. By evening, two large mounds of clutter formed near the front door – hills of castoff clothing, books, toys, and games destined for donation to charity.
Although they didn’t mean to do anything more than fight off the holiday doldrums, my kids got a quick lesson in the limits of consumerism as they cleared closets and shelves of unwanted stuff. The toys, gadgets, and designer outfits so long coveted in previous holiday seasons now seemed, in the dry light of hindsight, not to be so earth-shaking after all. It’s a reality I hope our family can keep in mind as another holiday shopping season goes into high gear.
In lightening their load of belongings, our kids gained other benefits, too. Freshly cleared of unwanted possessions, the children’s rooms now boast a lot more living space, and our son and daughter love the extra room.
While pitching things, our children also rediscovered long-forgotten treasures. My son is especially excited about using a half-dozen board games that came into our home during previous holidays, yet somehow, were never used. As part of the clean-up effort, he inherited six books from my daughter’s shelf, which made him feel richer.
The kids felt even more prosperous when they were able to donate so many items to a neighborhood thrift shop that uses its proceeds to help the needy.
Our daughter and son were graced by this newfound sense of well-being without spending a cent. Watching them smile at the end of their day of room-cleaning, I thought about Henry David Thoreau, who famously observed that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Thoreau’s point was that after basic needs are met, we can feel wealthier with less rather than more.
That philosophy is sharply at odds with the message that Americans have been getting through festivals of consumption such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Those banner days of the shopping season seem grounded in the notion that happiness comes from buying more and more stuff.
I welcome a healthy retail economy. As a newspaperman, I depend on a strong retail sector to support the advertising that pays my salary. I also know that a rebounding retail market can help advance the economic recovery that so many suffering Americans have been desperately awaiting.
But a recession created by a culture of excess cannot truly be healed by resorting to more excess. Real, sustained economic health comes from knowing what we really need, and what we can afford to do without.
Which is why, before you head to the local mall this season, I’d suggest you do what my kids have already done:
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”