What impact is ‘stuff’ having on your life?

Editor’s note: During Lent The Compass is offering a series, “Ways to Jump Start Your Faith.” Local columnists draw on their experiences to offer ways for everyday Catholics to more fully experience the penitential season of Lent. This week’s column is by Peter Weiss.

Before working at the Diocese of Green Bay, I spent seven years teaching high school theology, including a class called Morality and Social Justice. One of my favorite lessons asked students to reflect on their material possessions by making an inventory of everything they had in their bedrooms.

They were to be as specific as possible, attempting to account for the number of pairs of shoes, shirts, electronics, pictures and anything else that might occupy space in their rooms. After giving students time to struggle through this activity, I invited them to reflect on the impact all this stuff has on their lives. These were some of the best discussions we had in my classroom.

More recently, I have noticed the impact of stuff in my own home. My wife and I have five children, and though we do our best to avoid spoiling them, over time, we have accumulated an abundance of stuff. This mass of stuffed animals, Happy Meal toys, prizes from church picnics and other random items starts to take over. We notice it in rooms that are perpetually messy, items that can’t be found at bedtime (probably under the couch) and jagged items that lie as booby traps when walking through a dark room at night.

And it’s not just the kids’ stuff that has taken over. I see it in my T-shirt drawer that won’t shut, in the accumulation of papers and other random items on my dresser, or in that box that sits in my room, still unpacked from my classroom that I vacated almost nine months ago — sorry honey!

Lent is a good time to reflect on all this stuff and the impact it is having on my life. Is it really necessary? What would happen if I didn’t have it? What am I missing out on because I have too much stuff that is occupying this space?

In addition to thinking about the material possessions that crowd our lives, Lent is a good time to reflect on the other stuff that has taken over. For instance, how do we use our time? Are we intentional about the way we use our time, or do we let our days get filled with busyness that is often unnecessary? How much time do we waste on “mindless” activities – watching TV, checking Facebook, reading about our favorite athletes or celebrities?

Maybe the stuff we’ve accumulated is bad habits, habits we say we can control, but in reality are controlling us. Maybe we find that we’ve gotten into a bad habit of gossiping about our coworkers or we’ve become negative and cynical about the world or we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, for better or worse.

Of course some of these things are not bad in and of themselves. It’s perfectly OK to have possessions that help us live full and meaningful lives. All of us get busy in life at times and sometimes to cope, we need to find something mindless to do. Even some of our bad habits, though not good in themselves, are part of our human experience. If habits were easy to break, they wouldn’t be habits.

So the point of Lent isn’t to try to do away with everything or live up to some ideal of perfection that is impossible this side of heaven. Rather, Lent is about taking some time for reflection. It’s a time to look closely at our lives and ask ourselves if the stuff we have or the way we spend our time or the habits we’ve developed are drawing us closer to God or further away. I know, for me, when I don’t take time to reflect on these things, I find most of my choices draw me further into myself and further away from God and others.

This, I believe, is why we are invited to fast during Lent. Ultimately, it’s not about what we’ve given up, but what we do with the space we create. For me, that means creating more time for my wife and children. It means reading a good book that challenges me to be a better person, rather than seeing who the Packers might be interested in signing as a free agent. It means spending time in simple quiet with God. And it’s funny – when I devote my time to these activities, I find my life happier and more peaceful.

So if you haven’t done so already, I invite you to take some time this Lent to reflect on how stuff is impacting your life. As you do, take a moment to ask God in prayer, “What is one thing that I don’t need in my life and how can I fill that space with you?” I am confident that if you listen and follow through, you will arise Easter morning with more room in your heart for the risen Christ to dwell.

Weiss serves as Living Justice Advocate for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.