Stuff is one of my favorite words. I like the round plump way it feels in my mouth. I like the way it starts with a hiss, slowly snaking its way toward the light, only to come to an abrupt halt (we call it an alveolar stop in linguistics, in case you wanted to know), then ending in a slow flat leak of carbon dioxide (a labio-dental fricative). There’s a lot going on in your mouth when you say the “simple” word stuff.
But more than the sound and feel of the word, I like what it means and, more importantly, how it means it.
As with many words that appear simple, time spent in the Oxford English Dictionary quickly dispels that illusion. The noun stuff can mean a variety of things from supplies and possessions to textiles suitable for clothing, and even academic matter, as in “This teacher really knows her stuff.” It can mean something lofty, a fundamental substance, such as “the stuff of greatness.” Or it can be as specialized as the spin on a fast flying baseball (a new one to me). And, of course, we also have many verb meanings, derivatives (some very edible), and even a few expletives (among which, “O stuff and bother!” is the safest for Quakers to use).
There’s a lot of “what” to the word stuff, but the “how” is perhaps more significant. Stuff, in short, is not a reverent word. It is not likely to ever be incorporated into a liturgical prayer, carved onto a memorial plaque, or sung at a wedding. It struts down the halls with a casual, cocky air. Look closely and you’ll see a twinkle in its eye. It’s crossing its fingers behind its back.
Let’s consider stuff in the sense of personal property or possessions. “Hands off! This is my stuff.”
It’s precisely because of the irreverent casual feel of this word that I like to apply it to my possessions. In my heart of hearts, I find myself attached to my stuff in a most unholy way. When someone threatens to take what belongs to me, my emotions flare up. I can become very distressed at breaking some valued pot. Little kids running through my house unnerve me.
Labeling my things as stuff helps me put them in perspective. I desire to become less and less possessed by my possessions, freer to value what’s really valuable (like little kids).
As missionaries in Bolivia, we had to store our stuff in big barrels every time we came back to the States on furlough. These barrels had to be properly labeled in case something happened to us and the remaining mission staff had to sort, send, or sell our possessions. One time, in a fit of whimsy, I labeled our barrels “General Stuff,” “Specific Stuff,” “Favorite Stuff,” and “Stuff I could get along without if I had to but would prefer to keep if it’s all the same to whoever is reading this label.” (That one took five labels.) Fortunately, nothing happened to us.
I have this recurring Walter-Mitty-like daydream where my house and all my possessions burn down, but we escape unharmed. I remain calm and spiritual throughout the ordeal. When someone, dripping with pity, says to me, “I hear you were wiped out by the fire,” I reply, “Oh no, I’m still here, as good as ever. Just my stuff burned up.”
In my saner moments I laugh at that daydream. I know that a real fire would devastate me, that I would lose not only my “General Stuff,” but also my family photos, the teddy bear my daughter bought me, my great grandmother’s wedding dress, the stories the kids wrote when they were little, and other things I deeply value. I would need help in dealing with loss. This is reality.
John Woolman inspires me to put my possessions in perspective. I am especially drawn to the story in his journal about his growing retail business and his struggle with the “stuff and bother” of material success. He finally concludes that “Truth required me to live more free from outward cumbers,” and he simplifies his business so that he can give himself to traveling and encouraging his brothers and sisters in the Quaker family. Cumbers is another good word for stuff.
Jesus reminds us that God knows our need of adequate shelter, clothing, and food. Our Father is generous. We are to seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and he will supply all the stuff we really need (Matthew 6:33, Thomas version).
I need to be frequently reminded of this. I’m still far from John Woolman’s courageous act of throwing it all off. I’m still cumbered by more stuff than I need. But the desire for freedom and simplicity is growing. I pray God will help me to hold my possessions more lightly, and to know that, no matter how pretty, bright, or enticing, when all is said and done—it’s just stuff.
(This article originally appeared in the Evangelical Friend in March of 1992. I reprinted it here because I needed to remember it.)