At Christmas time, it’s natural to want to spoil those we love and, if we’re being totally honest, ourselves as well. Retailers spend weeks and months in the build up to Christmas trying to convince us to buy their goods and all too often we are drawn in hook, line and sinker. Even the internet has its way of assuming what we want. Turn on the radio or television and you’ll be bombarded by a whole host of adverts. In all cases, the message is quite simple; buy, buy, buy. Though it’s nice to give gifts at this time of year, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the web of materialism (the financial pressures of which can be all too real) and to become disengaged from the real meanings of Christmas; those of love, kindness, joy and peace. I think it’s safe to say that we could all gain a little perspective on what’s really important.
To some degree, materialism has always been prevalent in the western world, but not as much as it is today. I was in Covent Garden in central London just a few weeks ago. Walking by the Apple store late one Thursday evening, I was saddened to see what I assumed was a large group of homeless people camping out in the cold. To my surprise, those people were camping out simply to be the first to buy the new iPhone, which was due to go on sale the following morning. I’m certainly not knocking the concept of owning a mobile phone. I have an iPhone myself, though not the latest model. Let’s face it, in this day and age, most people do. What does trouble me, however, is the level of focus we seem to assign to material possessions, even to the point of putting ourselves through extreme measures in order to get hold of the latest gadget.
Just minutes away from Covent Garden is the renowned Neal’s Yard, where people flock to eat healthy produce and to participate in everything wellbeing. Mindfulness and wellbeing are real buzz words at present. Now more than ever, there is a mass desire to be more mindful, with more and more people taking mindfulness courses and participating in mindful activities, such as yoga and meditation. In terms of wellbeing, the sales of organic produce continue to rise, as consumers are now more concerned about their health and the quality of their food. The concepts of mindfulness and wellbeing have even found their way into the corporate world, with many corporate wellness programmes focusing on the importance of mindfulness and workplace wellbeing. How is it then that we are so engrossed by materialism at a time when we seem so desperate to improve our state of physical and mental health. Take the moment, if you will, to admire the irony.
For so much of the time, I suspect we assign the feeling of happiness to the ownership of material possessions. How many of us convince ourselves that material things are the route to social acceptance, success and personal appeal? When we feel down and despondent, a spot of retail therapy is often our go to resolution. I wonder, are we merely using possessions to fill the empty spaces within us, rather than addressing deeper underlying issues, such as loneliness, lack of self-esteem and anxiety? If only we could focus less on the material world and more on our thoughts and feelings. In doing so, we could free some space in our mind to give our inner voice the platform it deserves. Only then can we find true happiness.
The time to start decluttering is when material things accumulate beyond what is manageable in both a physical and financial respect. If you are having to spend much of your valuable time and energy maintaining your possessions or are having to work long hours to finance them, the very things you own end up owning you. Decluttering can in fact be a very therapeutic task when done in the right way. Clutter in and around the home can cloud our ability to see things clearly, thus resulting in stress. Having a clean and tidy home can promote a state of calm and give you the space you need to focus more on yourself and not on your possessions. After all, your home should be somewhere for relaxation and solitude.
Personally, I try to get rid of anything that I don’t use or need every couple of months. Prioritise your possessions. Separate items of vital importance from those of less importance. In doing this, it’s becomes a lot easier to identify the items you don’t use or need. If I can’t find a home for those things, I donate them to a local charity or church. I find this to be extremely therapeutic, as it really does feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Recognise the importance of sentimental possessions; the kind that evoke memories of love and happiness, those that enrich our sense of belonging. For me, it’s a 1960’s bath matt and egg slicer (both of which belonged to my late Grandmother) and a selection of greetings cards written by loved ones who have since passed away. Reading through them brings me a lot of comfort.
In a recent trip to Western India, the sheer contrast between our western world and their third world country was all too apparent. I met a lovely young girl called Saku who, at just the tender age of twelve, works on the beach selling jewellery illegally. With hardly any possessions, Saku and her family were willing to give me everything; their time, their kindness and their hospitality. How can a child with so little be so pleasant, so thankful and so happy? In Saku’s eyes, family is of upmost importance and little weight is given to material possessions. I suspect in any other environment, Saku may too fall victim to the pull of materialistic things. That said, I can’t help but think that we are going backwards in so many respects. I recall one year watching my youngest nephew open his Christmas presents. Phased by the sheer volume of presents, his attentions turned to a giant carboard box (once the home to a fairly large toy). He spent hours climbing in and out of the box. What young child doesn’t appreciate a giant den? So much time and money is often spent on buying children everything on their wish list, when often the simplest of things is what draws their attention. These days, instead of asking my nieces and nephews what they want for Christmas, I try to buy them just one or two thoughtful presents each, based on their personal interests; interests that I have observed throughout the year. The gifts I choose are often those that I know will reinforce these interests and therefore their sense of identity. To discourage an ‘I want’ mind-set, I try to reinforce the importance of thoughtful giving, of love and of gratitude, rather than that of receiving.
It’s a great idea to practice kindness and compassion at Christmas. Simple gestures can often make a big difference to those who are less fortunate. Give the gift of time and visit elderly and isolated neighbours. Your time, to them, will often be worth far more than any material gift you could buy. It gives an immense sense of personal satisfaction. Donate material possessions that you no longer need to those in need of them. Involving children in this act of kindness can be a great way to emphasise the real meaning of Christmas. Make the effort to connect with friends and loved ones. Spend time with them, laugh with one another and enjoy each others company. Instead of buying gifts for each other, during the Christmas period, me and my friends get together for a meal. This is a great idea, because it encourages what is often a long-overdue catch up and also means that we don’t have to surrender to the demands of materialism (and ultimately buyer’s remorse). It always reminds me that friendship is one of the greatest gifts. Meeting with friends enriches my life, as well as my sense of identity.
I don’t think there’s a need for us to abandon all our possessions, nor do I feel it’s a sin to want something and to go out and buy it. Nonetheless, I don’t think we should allow our possessions to define who we are or our sense of purpose. This Christmas, find joy through experiences, not things.