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Possessed by possessions?

By Karen Treanor - posted Thursday, 30 December 2010

I walked out of Target yesterday. I just couldn’t face standing behind 75 other people in order to buy two pairs of knickers and a DVD of “Arsenic and Old Lace”. I figured I could recycle some knickers from the dust-cloth bag until the post-Christmas feeding frenzy ceased and stores returned to normal. The Customer Service counter was besieged by dozens of folks wishing to return or swap gifts, and the regular checkout lanes were packed with bargain hunters laden with electrical gadgets, clothes, household goods and toys. The tailback reached all the way through “Soft furnishings” and almost to “Home Storage Options”.

Britt Smith of AAP reported on Boxing Day:

“Australians have been lumped with 19 million unwanted gifts this Christmas, but thrifty types are likely to turn their disappointment into an easy buck, a survey suggests. And the value of those less-than-desirable pressies is worth a predicted whopping half a billion dollars - money that was probably better off not spent.”


There’s something rather awful about that. The article goes on to say that most people will sell their unwanted gifts on E-bay or at garage sales.

How did we get to this stage, where gifts are unwanted, and in such profusion that we sell them just to be rid of them? The news article jolted my memory back three decades to when we were living overseas and working for a volunteer organisation.

Working in a third world country is a bit like being on a cruise ship: you meet people you would never have met in the ordinary course of events, and the shared experience makes a bond.

We lived some years in Southern Africa and had friends from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. We became quite close to a group of Anglican nuns who ran a secondary school, and also made friends with people in the technical assistance delegation from Germany. The two groups came together at dinner parties at our house.

The non-religious Peter F. liked the sisters, but did not understand their way of life.

One evening Peter said, "How can they be zo cheerful? They haff nothing, they are as poor as a kappelmaus. What a sad life."


Sister Jean overheard this and turned around and said with a smile "Peter, thank you for your concern but we have everything we need, plus good friends who invite us to dinner and conversation, what more would we want? We are totally free. If we had lots of worldly goods, we'd always be concerned about losing them to robbers or accident; we'd have to have insurance, which means we'd have to have money which means we'd have to find a source of money outside our present resources. We'd have to raise the school fees to provide more money, which means the poor girls who attend now would not be able see where this is going, don't you?"

Peter huffed through his moustache and said he supposed she had a point, but I think he didn't totally believe it that she was happy as she was.

A simpler life does free one from all sorts of worries and concerns. When we lived for six weeks in a rural area of Swaziland, we had the absolute minimum of worldly goods. We had a tiny concrete floored house with a sink that provided cold water - some of the time - a tiny woodstove, a borrowed table and two chairs, a baby crib, three stretcher cots and three sleeping bags, a toilet and shower, a big plastic wash bucket, a big soup pot, a frying pan and a few utensils and three tin plates.

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About the Author

Karen Treanor is an author of children's books who also writes about animals, particularly bandicoots. She is based in Western Australia.

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