My grandfather is the butt of a lot of family jokes (and not just because he calls Chicken Cordon Bleu “Chicken Condom Blue) because he is the quintessential “saver.” He drives around in his big car (it used to be a conversion van, but now it’s a massive SUV) and picks up building scraps that are left on the side of the road, supposedly, for trash pick-up. He’s gathered bricks and boards and doors this way. Once, he even tried to pick up someone’s siding BEFORE they put it on their house. He turns these treasures into walkways and sheds – sheds in which he stores more stuff to, it seems, build more sheds to store more stuff and on and on. He just truly hates to see things go to waste. His definite of waste involves preserving for use anything that could ever possibly be useful, at least in terms of building materials.

My father’s definition of waste is quite different. He thinks things waste space and time. For this reason, he and my mom are often missing remote controls for things my father thinks they don’t have but, actually, still do – like the DVD player. Dad’s idea of saving involves efficiency. This comes into play when he shops. The quickness of his purchases might make you think he did a military-style strike plan when looking for a hat for my mom. In and out. No fluttering about.

My mom, well, she keeps things for a while and then gets rid of them by making donations to the Salvation Army or MACAA. Her philosophy is that if she’s not going to use it it’s a waste for it to sit in her house. (As you can imagine, her mindset meshes well with that of my dad, the destroyer of remotes.)

I have inherited all of these tendencies. I hate clutter, like my dad. I hate to waste time if I could be doing something productive. I donate a lot of things to organizations. And recently, I saw that someone was giving away some bricks, and I thought, “I might be able to use those someday.” Fortunately, I don’t have a shed, or I might have a stash of bricks for myself.

But for me, not wasting has a lot more to do with simply not owning in the first place. Just after college, I read a quote by Thomas Merton where he said something like, “For everything I own, someone else goes without. There is a finite amount of energy and matter in the universe, so the more I consume the less someone else can have.” This snippet stuck with me, even though I gleaned it while shelving books during work at a bookstore, and honestly, it informs most of my purchasing decisions. I try not to buy something unless I need it. (The exception to this idea used to be books, but recently, I’ve even reined myself in this way.)

The truth is, though, that even trying not to waste can become problematic. Someone thinking they can use this and this and this and this and this later may lead to their appearance of that show Hoarders. Being too efficient with time can cause us to cut short our conversations and community with others. Giving too much away, even giving ourselves away too much, can make us exhausted and resentful. Sometimes the best way to not waste is to let go of that obsession itself. Sometimes, we have to drive by the siding or let the remote sit or bear with a box of stuff (especially when it belongs to a beloved daughter:)) because it’s more important. Sometimes I have to just buck up and accept that necklace as a gift because, well, it’s being given with love and that’s a lot more important than not “wasting” that money or matter. Sometimes balance is so much more important than worrying about waste. As Merton also said, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

Thomas MertonThomas Merton