(The Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development has announced the celebration of a Special “Laudato Si” Anniversary Year from May 24, 2020 to May 24, 2021. With the advent of the Covid-19 emergency, the world came to realize how interdependent and interconnected humanity is, and the need for solidarity in order to create a new world.)
Think about what you own. Really think about it. Close your eyes and take a tour of your house, of your garage, of your office, of wherever you put things.
And now think about how much energy it is all taking from you. Do you have security alarms to keep things safe? How often do you have to pick up that collection to dust under it? Do you have a corner in your kitchen for all the specialized appliances you bought and never used?
The truth is, we spend a lot of time thinking about the things we own. Possessions require maintenance, both internal and external. They fill our thoughts and our hours and our days. Professor Bruce Hood explains it this way:
"Most importantly, we are what we own. (…) William James wrote about how our self was not only our bodies and minds but everything that we could claim ownership over, including our material property."
The emotional connection to our property as an extension of our identity always remains with us. It’s called the “Diderot Effect," named after a French philosopher who wrote an essay, Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, in which he describes receiving a new robe as a gift. A nice, red robe. And he loved it. But then he started to realize that nothing fit in with it. None of his other clothes were as nice. So he had to get nicer clothes to match his gown. And then he had to get nicer furniture to match his nicer clothes. It led somewhere he regretted going. “I was the absolute master of my old robe,” Diderot wrote. “But I’ve become the slave of my new one.”
It’s easy for the Diderot Effect to happen. We’ve probably all experienced it at one time or another. Yet we all know in our heart of hearts that God doesn’t want us to be a slave to possessions and things.
But not owning “stuff” is about more than simply not filling our homes with possessions we don’t need. Let’s go back to Monsieur Diderot and his new robe. Perhaps surprisingly, the clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry. That new robe doesn’t just come at a cost to you, it comes at a cost to the planet. “Technology,” writes Pope Francis, “which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”
The problem is you need new clothing. The immediate solution is to buy something new. And immediately another problem presents itself. Where to store the new things? Do you need more space for them? When is the appropriate occasion to wear them? Should you get rid of something else now that you have a new one? Is someone going to be jealous because you have something so new?
Pope Francis is right: even on the very small scale of family life, acquiring something leads to unforeseen problems.
So what can we do?
According to Pope Francis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our inner moral character—sinful or virtuous—can be observed outwardly through our mindful care or our sinful abuse of the natural resources. With the first encyclical ever dedicated to the environment, Francis seeks to help us develop and put into practice core Catholic beliefs concerning humanity’s relationship with the world created by God—and entrusted to us.
In Laudato Sí, Pope Francis urges us to “return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. (…) We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more’.”
How do we avoid the Diderot Effect and truly live the spirit of Laudato Sí? By looking for ways use less, to share more, and to focus on relationships instead of things. That’s more of a challenge in this time of COVID-19 than ever before, but it can be done!
Try a few simple steps to get started:
- Buy less stuff. Before purchasing something new, ask yourself, “Do I need this? Does this bring me joy?” Have clothes, shoes, and other items repaired rather than throwing them out.
- Buy more consciously. Look for goods with less packaging. For instance, don’t buy individually wrapped cheese, or individual snack packs. Buy fewer things, but spend more to buy local, or to support businesses that pay fair wages.
- Eat more intentionally. Go meat-free. See if you can reduce your meat consumption at least one day each week, or reduce consumption of animal products. Buy local and in season fruits and vegetables, or try growing your own.
- Waste less. Reduce food waste, and avoid throwing away food whenever possible.
- Take time to pray and give thanks. Spend time every day to pray, to give thanks, and to savor the things that you do have.
Less can be a lot more when you throw away the trappings of the Diderot Effect and instead focus on the joys that come from living in God’s light. You’ll feel lighter, healthier, better. Give it a try!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir