The other day I was in a hurry, trying to reach for something in the back on a shelf, and I knocked a glass down. It hit the floor and shattered. I gasped in horror. It had been a gift from a friend, and was special to me.
Tears flooded my eyes and anger at my carelessness boiled up in me. Then I caught myself. “It’s only a thing,” I told myself, and repeated it over and over as I cleaned up the fragments of glass and threw them away. I still have the friend, I still have the memory of the occasion she gave me the glass, I still have the good feelings the friendship and the memory give me.
This past Christmas, we had our tree set up in the living room near the window. Outside we have several bird feeders which inevitably get monopolized by squirrels. Occasionally I indulge in the futile practice of scaring them away. It does little good, so I’ve been trying lately not to worry about them. I was at the table, working on my laptop, and my son came into the room. He noticed the squirrels on the feeder and, knowing how they annoy me, he reached over to bang on the window to scare them away (this doesn’t really work anymore; the squirrels are wise to us and ignore the sound). As he did, he brushed past the tree and knocked a delicate hummingbird ornament down. It smashed to the floor.
He was horrified, as angry with himself as I’d been when I broke the glass.
I choked back disappointment. “It’s only a thing,” I said.
“But it was one of your favorite ornaments, and I broke it!”
“There are lots of others on the tree,” I replied. “It’s only a thing.” And I meant it. In that moment, calming his distress and reassuring him were more important than the ornament. It was only a thing. He is a person and I love him.
We place so much value on things. We collect them, hoard them, guard them jealously. And yet, in a moment, they can be taken away from us. A fire in our home could destroy everything we own. But if the people and animals we love escape, that is what matters. The rest are only things. Difficult, expensive, and perhaps impossible to replace; I don’t underestimate the frustration of having to rebuild a home from scratch. In time, though, it happens. Things can be reacquired.
Some things have deep sentimental significance. An item that has been in the family for generations; an autographed book; a photograph; a ring. But that which makes them meaningful cannot be lost–the love they symbolize, the memories, the connection to other people and times. The loss of a thing cannot sever that connection, because everything that really matters lives within. The relationships that bring us happiness and give us strength do not require a thing to intermediate.
Things can bring us delight. I do not advocate a life without things (although many sacred traditions do). Just keep what they are in perspective and remember what is truly important: People, relationships, the joys that lie within the heart and mind. That which can’t be burned, stolen or shattered.
The rest are only things.