Many Americans have a strange relationship with their possessions. On the one hand, most people have a wishlist of things they want to buy, or items they would like to replace or upgrade. On the other hand, there are entire companies devoted just to helping us organize or store the stuff we already have. It’s easy to get into a spiral of spending money on items, and then spending money to store or organize them so that we can make room for even more.
While there is nothing wrong with owning things or wanting nice stuff, it is good to take a look at how we relate to our possessions. Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ shared the story of how his order’s seminary received a new cupola, and how the introduction of this beautiful new piece led him to be less satisfied with all the other, older pieces of the seminary. He said:
“Then something happened. We put it up there, we installed it, we put the Cross on at twilight. It was beautiful. The next day I’m looking at it, and we have this beautiful cupola on top of this roof that needs a little bit of painting, it needs a little bit of touch-up.
Then I started looking at the rest of the seminary, and I started to realize that this beautiful cupola (that was donated to us by a friend of the seminary) was now making me look at everything else, and all the other things that needed to happen, all of the other things that need to be done.
Have you ever had that happen? You buy new hand towels for your bathroom, and pretty soon you’re buying new sofas for the living room. Because you buy new hand towels and realize you need a new bath carpet, and then you need to repaint the bathroom, and then you need to repaint the hallway, and then you need to redo the furniture inside the living room. Before you know it, it has led to this spiral of consumerism that can spiral out of control sometimes.
Believe it or not, there is a name for this. It’s called the Diderot Effect. Named after a famous French philosopher of the Enlightenment, Diderot, who, among other things wrote this famous essay, entitled ‘Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.’ And inside this essay he talks about the experience where he received a new robe as a gift. A nice, red robe. And he loved it.
He loved wearing it, it was nicer than anything he had. But then he started to realize that nothing fit in with it. None of his other clothes were as nice. So he got nicer clothes to match his gown. And then he had to get nicer seats to match his nicer clothes. And then he had to get nicer furniture to match his nicer seats. It led to this out of control spending that he really regretted.
I liked what Diderot said about his dressing gown. He said, ‘I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of my new one.’ This happens so much in our life. God doesn’t want us to be a slave to possessions and things.
Although sometimes you have to purchase new things, and it’s important to do that, it still happens that we become slaves to our possessions. And I see this happening more and more in our society and in our culture. We become slaves to what we possess. Our possessions begin to possess us.
Jesus has some important words about this throughout Scripture. Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be. He encourages His disciples, over and over, to not be attached to material things.
Blessed are the poor, he said. Not blessed are those who have new robes, new cupolas, and new painted seminaries. It’s been a lesson for me, too, and I need to be careful and cautious in this. I could do it in the name of good things and spend money, but fortunately I have limitations in place.
But maybe you also need to reflect on that. How can you avoid falling into this consumerist attitude that can spiral out of control? Are you spending money, collecting things, amassing possessions imagining that they’re going to give you some semblance of happiness? Guess what, they never do.
They usually lead us to be possessed by them. They usually lead us to be unhappy, and so we seek out more material things. If you are seeing the Diderot Effect in your life, beware. And be aware that Jesus has a solution for it, and that is detachment.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be attached to material things. In fact, He wants us to be attached to one thing alone. And that is to Him. Because it is only in Jesus that we find peace and happiness. It is only in Him that we find joy.”
Listen to the full reflection below: