Obsession with stuff tarnishes season of giving

Because it’s that time of year, I’ve been preoccupied with our relationship to stuff. There are many motivations driving our relationships to our stuff, some of them understandable and some of them beyond the grasp of most people — but I will get to that.

Recently, I helped my in-laws prepare for their move to a larger house. This goes against the common grain of downsizing at their ages, but my mother-in-law has so much stuff, they needed a bigger house in which she could display it.

All of it has meaning to her, from the stem of cotton bowls to the miniature Coca-Cola can she has on her kitchen windowsill that came from a party thrown in her honor in Belgium. It is sacrosanct, and it is making the move. Her obsession with stuff is driven by sentimentality.

The other end of the acquisition spectrum is greed. You might remember Tim Durham, the Indianapolis lawyer and leveraged buyout “genius” who is serving 50 years in prison for committing the largest white-collar crime in Indiana’s history.

This year, American Greed featured him in an episode, and his story is repellent. He had an obsession with stuff. He owned more than 20 cars, including Bentleys and Rolls Royces. He had a 100-foot yacht with 12 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. The house he owned in Geist was 12,000 square feet. He purchased all of this by taking “loans” from his company, Fair Financial, an acquisition that was formerly a family-run business.

It’s a story you’ve heard before; just substitute the names and places. The people who deposited their money in Fair Financial were nuns, farmers, teachers: people whose families had a history of investing in this company going back to 1937. They lost everything due to Durham’s unpaid “loans”.

Although the obvious motivation for Tim Durham is greed, dig deeper, and you’ll find insecurity masquerading as pomp. He needed things to get a sense of self-worth. But this is a rabbit-hole with no end. For people like him, there can never be enough.

To a small degree, we might all be able to relate to this, considering our designer-brand world. Although most of us would never hurt others for such personal gain, we might be guilty of being duped ourselves.

At Christmas and every holiday, manufactured or not, we’ve been trained by advertising execs to think the spirit of shopping is the spirit of giving. Although the joy of giving is what we are supposed to believe we are experiencing at Christmas, are Black Fridays and frantic Dec. 24 runs to the mall really examples of the joy of giving? Do we really believe that more stuff makes for a better Christmas morning? Could the money from our more frivolous gift giving be applied more purposefully?

This Christmas, many of us will buy objects for our loved ones we know they won’t really value, and like 2014’s Christmas crackers, they will end up in the trash.

An object lesson might be to select your gifts with care, remembering that, truly, it’s the thought that counts. Choose quality over quantity, and look for the special something that will be a gift that keeps giving.

Even better, give the gift that keeps giving to your community. Commit to a monthly donation to the Hancock County charity of your choice. In Greenfield alone, for those who need help meeting their daily needs, there is the Hope House (shelter and clothing), the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen (food), Women Helping Women (medical care), the food pantry (food), the Women’s Resource Center (job assistance and more) and churches doing community work. And, of course, the Hancock County Community Foundation is a wonderful one-stop charitable shopping experience.

A small monthly donation is money you won’t miss, and it helps these organizations do the good work they do. At this time of year, think twice about your spending. Your monthly giving can make the difference in someone’s life, maybe even a nun or farmer or teacher who was swindled. Your monthly gift will mean so much more than another trinket in the stocking.

Donna Steele of Greenfield is a member of a variety of community organizations aimed at bettering the city, including Greenfield Main Street and the Greenfield Coalition.