Blessed is Nothing


It was the one place I dreaded to enter– the “place that shall not be named” – the a-t-t-i-c. Our move to Iowa was fast approaching and Tammy continued to remind me that we needed to do this, but I would conveniently find another important task to occupy my time. After all, it was too hot up there, right? And we didn’t have enough bags and boxes on hand to complete the task. That’s it. We just weren’t adequately prepared. We’ll do it next weekend. Despite my brilliant tactical approach to procrastination, the day of reckoning finally came and into the attic we climbed.

American culture seems to reward accumulation and attics, closets and garages are the museums of our lives. The experience of sorting, packing and moving is the one occasion in which the inventory process reveals in one moment the very best of intentions and the short-sightedness of many choices. If the U.S. Census required a listing of the stuff we have stored away in our homes, I think certain patterns would emerge. Clearly, underutilized exercise equipment would be the item at the top of the list nationwide. Next would be children’s clothing in pristine condition, but set aside by growth spurts that seem to always come within weeks following the back-to-school shopping season. It must be the cooler air. Following close behind would be toys, games and puzzles that were in the “must have” category in the store – yet with a half-life of about a week. Then there are the gifts we have received, where “re-gifting” was simply not an option and burial in the attic seemed to be the most immediate solution. 

As the old saying goes,

“It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you have.”

This trip through our attic was a bit different. I began to see a pattern in the things piled high.

Let’s begin with the obvious. There are some things we regret not using any more. “Just think where I would be now if I had only continued to . . .” I suspect we can all fill in the blank with something we once cared about. And while the statement is certainly true for me, I am reminded that somewhere along the way I made a choice. The seasons of life force us in certain directions. The presence of young children, for example, reshapes all of human experience. The hobby, sport or activity of young adulthood is crowded out by playgroups, school activities and endless trips in the minivan to yet another soccer game. The culture of accumulation, however, creates this conflict within us that says, “You should be ashamed of spending all that time and money on something and not using it. What a waste!” Releasing ourselves from these prior interests is hard. But the ability to set aside the things we were once enamored with represents progress, not a lack of commitment. There are some things we need to leave behind. Get rid of the guilt and move on.

We then find reminders of past learning that has helped to shape our lives – experiences we would like to renew. The old hat I purchased from the trip to Greece; the books and binders from college; the guitar with broken strings. These are the items that represent the knowledge, skills and experiences that have helped me understand myself and the world. Most of this remains with me, but I am troubled by how much I have forgotten. An old professor once told me that early in his career he would tell students that the methodologies he was teaching would serve them for the rest of their lives. As he neared retirement he admitted to me that he was entirely wrong. In fact, most of the methodologies he taught in those early years were no longer relevant at all. As knowledge expands and the world becomes increasingly complex, we should realize that what we derive from our accumulated knowledge is an understanding of how we learn and where knowledge can be found. Our interests may change, but our curiosity should grow. Fortunately, learning is less about space and more about time. Perhaps the two are inter-related. If I take up less space with things, maybe I can find more time to learn.

Determining what to keep is the greatest challenge. It’s really about what I value. As I sorted through a pile of luggage, I rediscovered the first catalog bag I used as a rookie admissions counselor in the early 1980s. I was fresh out of college. In those days, admissions counselors traveled like a carnival from high school to high school, and from college fair to college fair. Friendship was common and friendly competition made it fun. The catalog bag and the tabletop display were the tools of the trade and comparisons of design and durability were often discussed during conversations in the hallway. Duct tape was often essential. My display was nothing special, but my catalog bag was different. I probably spent more on it than was necessary. I don’t think anyone particularly admired it, but my initials are monogrammed on the top and I felt like a professional when I carried it around. I can’t think of a practical use for it now, but I haven’t been able to let go of it either. Perhaps it’s symbolic. My catalog bag reminds me of the early days of my career and is filled with the values I have accumulated through the lessons of life. I need to carry that with me, especially today. It’s worth keeping.

As we completed the task of organizing the attic it occurred to me that leaving things behind – even things that once mattered a lot – is okay. I also realized that my devotion to learning accumulates knowledge, skill and experience, but occupies very little space in the stack of possessions I take with me. Most of all I found that the things I value most are sometimes symbolized by artifacts that serve to remind me of what matters in life.

There was a common refrain in my home as I was growing up: “Blessed is Nothing.” I was never fond of this phrase since it always seemed to emerge when I could not get something I really wanted. I have a different perspective now. The older I get, the less I want. Each holiday season I would ask my Mom what she wanted for Christmas. The answer was always the same, “Peace and quiet.”  It’s funny how her Christmas list is now mine.

What’s yours?

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11 responses to “Blessed is Nothing”

  1. TJ Duff says:

    As I was reading Dr. Putnam’s article, it occurred to me how often I have had to tell myself “no”. I need to tell myself no when I go to Hy-Vee, when I go to Target; pretty much wherever I go. It isn’t because I cannot afford it, I tell myself no because I do not need whatever it is that chance has put in front of me. During this Christmas season, I pray that we remember that most of what we get is a ‘want’, rather than a ‘need’. While this is not exactly what Dr. Putnam was driving at, I am hopeful people will be reminded of what it is that we are buying: wants. Bravo, Dr. Putnam, bravo.

  2. mark truth #2 says:

    How about offering a solution to all of the wasteful spending that is the genesis of the accumulation? My solution is take your Christmas gift budget from last year and reduce it by 10% and donate that 10% to a charitable organization. I read in the Sunday Register that 15% of families went hungary at one time during the last year.

    If you are already doing that then I challenge you to donate more to a charity. As it says in the Bible, it is more blessed to give than to receive.

    • TJ Duff says:

      You’re absolutely right Mark. We should give more to the poor. If we were to give just 10% of our regular Christmas spending to those in need, I’m sure there will be many people in the country of Hungary that could use the help. I’m sure they are hungry as well.

  3. One of the elderly says:

    For the past few months my family has been involved in the process of finally culling our collection of “attic hoardes” and treasured memories of the past so it might be possible to have orderly closets, neat storage areas and organized “keepers.”
    For many years we blamed growing up in the Great Depression for our hesitancy in throwing away useless assorted items and taking cast-off, perfectly good clothing to Goodwill, Animal Rescue League, or a clothing bank. Usually I am not one to give up on a task, but I’m beginning to weaken and admit that no matter how large the house and no matter how spacious the closets, we’re probably doomed to living in our museum which some might call a cluttered house, but which my daughter calls a “lived-in” look. If we kept only what we need we’d be rattling around a nearly vacant house,
    but then, who says memories are worthless!

  4. Todd M. Stein says:

    @ President Putnam — Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts with the Central College Community (both present and past) via your posts. Thank you, also, for leaving replies posted that run contrary to your opinions/etc as well — even when they appear to be from someone who is simply trying to anonymously “stir the pot.”

    @ “mark truth #2” — seriously, have you ever found anything positive to write (anonymously or otherwise) about President Putnam? It appears that you are on a one-person-crusade against him…while hidden behind your computer keyboard, of course.

    FYI: “hungary” (Hungary) is in Europe; “hungry” is a need or desire for food. 😉

    Todd M. Stein
    Central College Class of 1992.
    [please note that I’m signing my real name]

  5. Dani Law says:

    “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” Eleanor Roosevelt

    Thank you for your words, President Putnam. You have shown a surprising degree of involvement in the lives activities of everyone on this campus, and through your words and actions you have shown many of us which of the above categories you belong to. While I might not agree with everything you’ve said since you’ve been here, I am happy to have crossed paths with someone like yourself. Thank you.

  6. Jennifer Giezendanner-Gates says:

    Thank you, Dr. Putnam, for this thoughtful review of your private “big mess.” I especially applaud the idea that as we grow and learn we leave some aspects of ourselves behind. Thus, it’s okay to pass on the material stuff that went with those activities and aspirations to someone else. May we also have wisdom in choosing the directions for our growth, and be generous in those as well.

  7. Dutchboy says:

    1 Timothy 6
    6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
    11But you, child of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

  8. Alanna Hug-McAnnally says:

    At Christmas, our family shares good memories and cards. We have found this to be very meaningful. As for “stuff,” whenever I have things to give away, I always give them to the Women’s Shelters. This would also include clothes from my husband, as many women have teenage sons they bring with them. Please remember, these shelters are a haven, and yet very sad. The need everything – from bedding, clothes, toys for the younger kids – or stuffed animals, pictures for walls to make the shelters more cheerful. ANYTHING. All you need to do is call the seven digit non-emergency number of your police station and they will get in touch with the shelters for you. Then you will receive a call where they will meet you (as the shelter address is always secret). You will give more hope than you will ever know. Thank you.

  9. VPS says:

    Pretty Nostalgic, I’d say! I don’t have an attic, but I did have the (mis)fortune of having to clean out the junk-room that has spent the last several years tending to the unwanted trappings of my youth! I probably spent more time playing with the old set of “branded plastic building blocks” that you cannot speak of unless you own the trademark. Hah! But rummaging around was amazing and I had great memories.
    And, like most indicate, there was much donation, save for the plastic bricks. The decision to keep or not on the rest of it was easily made. I hope the next owners enjoy as much as I did many years ago. There are many, many places that need kindness and warmth of giving. -V