The Dicksons moved to a new-to-us house in the summer of 2007, after 25 years of raising three children in what I will always think of as our family home.
    I understood then and there that we Dicksons have way too much stuff.
    Too many clothes. Too many books and magazines. Too many appliances. Too much of just about everything.
    {mosimage}None of us could explain where all these belongings had come from, who bought  them and why, even who was using them, if anyone. Why, for example, did my little family have a half dozen hair dryers stashed in various bathroom cabinets and more gift bags at the ready than we were likely to have gifts to give? Why had I continued to buy cans of tuna when I had more than 10 in the pantry, some of which had been there so long, their expiration dates had passed? Why did we still have broken toys and video games which fit into players we no longer had even though the children were in college or beyond?
    It was a real learning experience in the American way of excess.
    Now we are, again, in the season of what has become even more glorious excess. This financially trying year, though, there will not be as much stuff for many of us. Retailers, of course, see that as a negative situation, and slower sales will have repercussions across our troubled economy.
    Those of us who have become accustomed to massive holiday receiving may be disappointed this year, but I am trying hard to see opportunity here, an opportunity to take stock of what we do have and how and why we got it and what we really need.
    Many of the gifts I did buy this season, I bought with various credit cards. This has not always been the case, though. As a teenager shopping in downtown Fayetteville, everything I bought I had to pay for with cash. When I got a little older and into the working world, I paid for my purchases with checks. Either way, I had to have the cash in hand to make my purchases.
    Easy credit changed all that.
    With the simple whipping out of a little plastic card, we can now become proud owners of our heart’s material desires whether we really have the cash to pay for them or not, which is how many of us wound up with all our stuff. We have become a nation with little self-restraint about what we purchase. That “stuff” has taken on an importance far out of proportion to what it really means in our lives. That fact came home to me in the most visceral way when I heard the news story about the Wal-Mart greeter, a man over 6 feet tall, who was trampled to death on Black Friday by a crowd of shoppers who literally killed for a bargain.
What earthly possession could possibly be worth participating in that?
    Our preoccupation with consumption is paradoxical. While millions of Americans have stuff, we are also in need. We have possessions galore at the same time really basic and critical needs are not met. This season we are seeing people with plenty of the paraphernalia of modern American life heading to food banks to provide for their families. We see our fellow Americans losing their homes full of stuff to foreclosure because they took advantage of too-easy credit. We see people with plenty of possessions foregoing needed prescriptions because they cannot afford them and have no health insurance coverage to help. We see students, many of them first generation college goers, who will not return to their institutions of higher learning for the coming semester because student loan monies have dried up.
    As difficult as all this is right now, I believe that it is our opportunity, even if we are being forced to look at it kicking and screaming, to take stock of what is really important to us. My family is healthy, and we are together this holiday season. We have a house, and we are warm and anticipating another meal. We have vehicles to get us places and, at least for now, gasoline available to power them.
    Life is not perfect to be sure, but many of us are increasingly thankful our basic needs and many of our wants are being met. The coming year and perhaps beyond is going to bring tough days for many Americans and for millions of people in other parts of the world, and none of us can take our own well being or our material possessions for granted.
    My hope for the days ahead is that we will emerge from our financial distress, whenever that may be, a country refocused on the values that made our nation great, and that American families will be reminded that the most valuable possessions are not things, but the time and care we give each other.
    As you ponder what is most dear in your life, I can almost promise you it will not be something you bought with a credit card.

Contact Margaret Dickson at

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