Sunday, February 21, 2010


I will now skip a bit ahead to chapter 11, Necessities and Superfluities, in Father Dubay's book Happy are you Poor, because it gave me some useful practical categories to hang my thinking on.

First, how do we define a superfluity? Father Dubay says most of us indulge in superfluities all the time without even realizing it.

  • We eat or drink what we don't need.
  • We rest when we're not weary.
  • We speak when it's not important that our voice be heard.
  • We buy clothes when we have a lot we do not wear.
  • We buy labor saving devices when the labor would actually be good for our bodies.
  • We ride when it would be better physically to walk.
I'm sure that's just a partial list, but it will give you the idea! That generic "we" doesn't apply to everyone, of course, but it sums up the big picture in America, even among the "poor".

Superfluity, he thinks everyone would agree -- is anything that goes beyond what is necessary.

But how can we define necessary? Some people may think they "need" 50 expensive outfits, or two cars, or a new color television, or a laptop, or whatever. And some people may actually in truth, in a sense, "need" more clothing or whatever than others. I remember when Aidan was constantly refluxing everything he ate. We had enough onesies and receiving blankets and cloth diapers for 2-3 babies. In other circumstances it probably would have been too much, and in fact I just recently broke my heart and gave away a big bag of his old receiving blankets (I kept a couple for souvenirs since I really appreciated my mother in law giving me a couple of gowns my husband had worn as a baby). One person may really be able to use a laptop, while for another, it is excess.

Here's a few quotes which I liked:

On Final Ends:

Our problem, then, is basically to determine what is a necessity. And this question cannot be answered except in terms of finality, purpose, goal. There are therefore two kinds of necessity from this point of view: ends and means. Ends are sought for themselves beause they are good in and for themselves. Knowing and loving are such. This is why God is the supreme necessity. He is pure love and truth and delight, the final end or purpose of the human person. He is absolutely necessary not only for himself and in himself (he could not not be) but also for us. Without him we are eternally frustrated, and that is hell. WE may call ends like knowing and loving intrinsic necessities. From their very nature we must have them in and for themselves. Absolutely no reason justifies our being without them.

On means:

Means are not necessary in themselves, but only when we must have them to get us to indispensable ends or purposes. Teaching is necessary because because in our human situation a child cannot mature to his full potential without education at home or in a school. Instruction is necessary as a means to something else. Food and drink are needed as means to health, an end.

On superfluities

A superfluity therefore is a thing that is needed neither for itself as an end nor as a means to get to something that is so needed. Food is superfluous when because of quality and/or quantity it is not needed for health.... Pursuing a superfluity is pursuing a dead end.

Hard sayings, I think! He goes on to say that differences on ideas of "ends" is the most important reason that people differ so much on what they consider "necessary". If you somehow think prestige is a goal you may collect your earthly goods towards making a mark or getting your kids to make a mark. And so on.

What I am taking from this at the moment is that it is good to consider, to regularly examine why you have the things you have. In another chapter he makes the points that our "goods" are in a way extensions of ourselves and our intentions. I thought this was very interesting. If you take up a knife, you usually intend to cut something. If you have toys around the house, you probably have a child or maybe a grandchild who visits regularly. What if you have things you never use? What are you saving them for? Would it be better to give them to someone else who could actually use them? And so on.

Our goods, being "extensions" of ourselves, have the possibility of being "inflations" of ourselves. This is what I am seeing on my particular stage of the journey. We have one of those Leo Lionni fables about a snail who wants his shell to be magnificent -- so he figures out a way to add all these elaborations to his shell. Finally he can't move, he is so burdened by the weight of all the ornamentation and size -- so he slowly fades away into dust. We tend to think of our possessions as somehow defining us, and this is more true than we might think. As Father Dubay says, it makes a statement louder than words about what we value. And the statement may end up being so loud and strong it drowns US out. It makes us preoccupied, according to Aquinas (following St Paul) and sluggish and unadaptable to the workings of grace.

My sense is that other people have more ability not to be drowned out by their things than I do. I know many people who have plenty of "things" but they are better managers than me and their things really speak well about the quality of their life. But for me, I've had the uneasy sense for a long time that the Winnie the Pooh epigram that amused my seven year old, about whether the jar he was floating on was a Boat or an Accident, hits too close to home. When the stuff is basically in charge of me rather than me of it, it is not an Ark, to change the image a bit, but an Accident, even an Obstacle.

Well, I didn't get to the list of necessities, did I? Maybe after I deal with excess stuff I can deal with excessive wordiness ;-). But I am glad to have thought this through a bit more.


  1. Willa- ONE of my greatest problems is books. We have 15 5-shelved bookcases full of books, plus a lot on other smaller shelving units. I will say that all our books are on shelves.
    My question is what guidelines could I use (or do you use) to assist in deciding to keep or pass along books. Anne in GR

  2. I think my house is an Obstacle. Unfortunately, most of what is left is "kids stuff" or dh's... but it's still too much for me.

    I'm re-reading this book thanks to your inspiration. This is probably going back several weeks in your posts, but I hit a point today where he said we cannot serve two masters - and I realized I think I am "serving" my stuff by always thinking about it, moving it, reading about how to care for it...arg! I don't know what to do about that though. More reading! :)

  3. Good perspective, Amy!

    Willa, may I please borrow that book later this year? I have always wanted to read it...but never got it.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!