Giles Fraser: Learning to spot a fading pleasure

19 December 2007

What is going to happen to all this stuff we are buying for Christmas? Here’s a clue: the company Safestore started in 1998, and now has more than 80 huge self-storage venues throughout the country. Business is booming.

Its chief executive, Steve Williams, reckons that, on a conservative estimate, the self-storage market is set to expand by between ten and 15 per cent per year, for a number of years to come. There are already more than 20 million square feet of space to rent in this country. In the United States, there are 1.6 billion.

All this space is for stuff we cannot throw away, and, apparently, cannot do without.

These new lock-ups often hide the flotsam of some personal sadness or failure: a broken marriage, a bankrupt business. But, alongside these and other reasons, the rapid growth in vast personal-storage warehouses is also evidence that our eyes are bigger than our belly. These places are temples to the bloated stupidity of the acquisitive society.

“Look at the birds of the air,” says our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount: “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.” This business of not gathering into barns is a theme that runs throughout the scriptures. There is the story of manna in the Sinai wilderness. Those who gather too much and try to store it up will find that, by morning, it has gone rotten.

This clear teaching — that we ought to take enough, but no more — contrasts sharply with the attitude of the Pharaoh, who seeks to insure himself against risk by hoarding grain in large barns. It is a foolish policy. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt . . . but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

It does not take a moral genius to know that shopping cannot satisfy the deepest reaches of the human heart. Yet we keep on buying more and more stuff. It is the saddest of ironies that, at this time of year, when we are called to reflect on the simple miracle of a child in a cow shed, we choke up our imaginations with lots of fancy things.

Shopping can be as addictive as drugs: a cheap thrill — no, an expensive thrill — masses of waste, and then the need for more. This addiction powers Western economies, so we are discouraged from acknowledging it. But it has its victims just the same.

Is this column just another riff on the well-worn point that we are overly materialistic? Too right it is. Some stuff lasts, and some stuff does not. The point of being a Christian is to appreciate the difference. Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Sion’s children know.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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