With the “season of giving” upon us, it’s all about shopping, shopping, and more shopping. There’s Black Friday. Cyber Monday. And look! So many shiny pretty things in most every window! And all those ads! Pop-ups, prop-ups, and all that glossy paper teasing things we MUST buy for someone we love. (Because what says “love” like STUFF, right?).
I mean, of course, we mean well. And who doesn’t enjoy a little “retail therapy” now and then? We want to give. We want to share. And, as Kabbalah encourages, selfless giving is one of the ultimate goals of a spiritual life: the wish to receive not for myself only, but in order to share with others. So in a sense, all this seems well and good.
Yet whether or not we choose to face it, every THING we get or give has a life span–which, these days, tends to be rather brief. In his poem “First Place, Last Place,” Hans Ostrom reflects upon a trophy–awarded for one feat or another–whose silver arms would be outreached “for as long as its soft, shiny, metal will last.” Later, after musing at the trophy’s lack of purpose once its receiver has passed, he notes how, “at garbage dumps, they break apart gracefully. ” But that’s not always the case. In fact, in a single Halloween weekend, a UK study estimated that 2,079 tons of waste entered landfills–mostly plastic pumpkins and single-use costumes. And that’s just in one country. On one holiday.
The “disposable mentality” extends beyond our material lives as well. Seeking a partner? If you don’t like their photo, you can literally swipe them away. Has someone offended you on social media? Unfriend or unfollow them. So clean. So easy! And it avoids all the bother of face-to-face awkwardness.
We live in so much wealth and excess, it’s easy to ignore the end game and to forget to value what we do have. However, when we face times of lack or need, that appreciation is quick to return. In his book Long Way Home, Holocaust survivor Samuel Shinder recalled how he once traded a precious watch–a beloved gift from his father–for a meager morsel of bread to share with his sister. When survival was at stake, the watch no longer mattered. What did matter was life.
How, then, in a world of discarding and disregarding, can we learn to regain balance and remember what truly matters? How can we connect with, and pass along, the more lasting treasures in life?
We can start by valuing experiences over things. Research has shown that what we do brings us more happiness than what we have. According to psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, “Nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries.” That’s because memories, unlike things, don’t end up in landfills–unless we metaphorically put them there! Plus, experiences are malleable. They bend and shift with the light of the day. They help us bond with others. Through them, we discover more about the world and ourselves. Even our phones and computers, which play such integral roles in our lives–can never be of us. They, like the soiled pizza cartons on the top of the trash heap, will also become obsolete.
There’s a Native American philosophy known as the “Seven Generation Principle.” It holds that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world for seven generations to come. Similarly, the Zohar tells how, in manifesting us (and everything else), the Creator is able to “perceive the end in the beginning.” So, as the next weeks unfold with all the sparkles to delight and blind us, let’s be more mindful of what we buy, of where it may end up, and of how it may (or may not) enrich another’s life.
As for the quest for those more enduring gifts we can bring to ourselves and others, I’ll share some sage advice from one of my great teachers, Karen Berg. She taught that nothing lasts longer–or brings more meaning–than does sharing. “Share of yourself in a way that permanently improves the quality of life in this world,” she said. This practice “transforms your essence into that of the Creator… creating a circuit through which all the gifts you have been given flow in a continuous cycle.”
It’s like recycling at a spiritual level: no waste, and all gain! Because, at least on this earthly plane, the closest thing to an everlasting gift is the light we shine into the here and now.
We shine it when we value what we have… when we choose to waste less and share more… when we create experiences that enrich our own and others’ lives. And that is how we help to light the way ahead, beyond and despite the rubble.