STUFF
a sermon given by the Rev. Roger Paine
Sunday, November 1, 1998
THE FIRST PARISH IN LINCOLN

In her latest book, Harvard economist Juliet Schor quotes an essay
written by the 18th Century French philosopher, Denis Diderot;
the essay is called, "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown."
A friend of his had given him a beautiful scarlet dressing gown.
He was delighted with it, and quickly got rid of his old one,
but as he sat in his old, familiar study wearing his new dressing gown
            he noticed that his desk looked a bit... shabby,
               the tapestry... threadbare...
     even the bookshelves no longer looked quite right.
So one by one, Diderot replaced the well-worn furnishings in his study until, one day,
he found himself sitting uncomfortably at his new desk,
   surrounded by nothing but other new and unfamiliar things,
  and regretting what he called the influence of  "this imperious scarlet robe
[that] forced everything else to conform to its own elegant tone."
Juliet Schor calls this 'the Diderot effect':
  new goblets to go with the new china,
   a new blouse to go with the new skirt,
          new furniture to go with a new house.

Now, this is not a sermon designed to make us all feel bad about the things we have.
Stuff is not evil.
The truth is, some stuff is useful, like a toaster or a cutting board,
  some stuff is beautiful, like a painting or a vase,
        and some stuff is just plain fun, like a Halloween costume or a new CD.
It's also fun to be able to go out and buy something we've been wanting - to get new stuff.
But some of our stuff is just in our way.
Some of it may even be dangerously in our way:
too much stuff can keep us from seeing the stuff that really matters.
And changing our stuff-related habits is not as simple as we may think.
According to a study by a neuro-scientist at UCLA,
that good feeling we have when we go buy something we want is not just satisfaction,
                         it's serotonin.

Serotonin is a chemical produced in the brain that enhances our sense of well-being.
UCLA's Michael McGuire studied nineteen tribes of monkeys
and discovered that in every single tribe,
the dominant member had 50% more serotonin in its system than the other monkeys;
  in other words, being the top monkey felt good.
Dr. McGuire's study reminded me of a poster from the 1980's:
it showed a large and beautiful house with an expensive car parked in the circular drive,
  a private plane sitting on the lawn,
  and all sorts of luxurious gadgets displayed in the foreground.
It said: "Whoever has the most toys when he dies wins."

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