For the moment, forget the effect of all this stuff on the environment,though of course it's enormous. (According to the Worldwatch Institute,North Americans have used more natural resources since the end of World WarII than all of humanity used in all the time before.) Forget all thefigures about debt and bankruptcy and our general failure to save for ourold age. Consider only the effect of this stuff on us. Up to a certainpoint, it's delightful--we live in comfort, which is a new and still notwidespread phenomenon. <>

But past that point, and most of us are miles pastit, there's something oppressive about our gear, our equipment, ourtrappings, our stuff. If nothing else, despite our ever-larger houses, wehave no place to put it. I wager that behind the fixed grin with which wegreet some grand Christmas present, many of us have thought: Where on earthis this going to go? Here's the bottom line: We have so much stuff that apile of presents is no longer exciting, no longer novel. And we don't get soexcited by stuff--or, rather, we do, but not for long. We've been socarefully trained to buy more that we find ourselves shopping when we'rebored or depressed, but the lift from the new thing hardly lasts the drivehome.

The Long Lost Silent Night
But that's not the real culprit. Much more, it's the way all the noises thatwe choose to listen to have infiltrated our minds. We're caffeinated,buzzed, wired, plugged-in. In one recent survey, only 19% ofAmericans said they wanted a "more exciting, faster-paced life." Excitementcan't excite us anymore.

What can excite us--what can make us salivate the way a circus could makesome Kansas farm boy salivate--is the prospect of a lull, an interlude.Stillness scares us (that's why the TV goes on when we walk in the hotelroom), but it attracts us, too. If there's one thing we'd really like fromChristmas, I think, it's a little of that "season of peace" that thegreeting card writers are always promising. It's one of the reasons "SilentNight" is the all-time favorite carol. There's a moment when we sing it eachyear at the end of the Christmas Eve service, with the lights out andeveryone holding a candle that frames their face with soft light, and thatmarks for me the absolute light of Christmas.

If there's one way in which the world has changed more than any other since1840, one thing that's truly different about our lives, it's that we'vebecome such devout consumers. That consumption carries with it certainblessings (our lives are long and easy by any historical standard) andcertain costs (first and foremost the damage it causes to the rest ofcreation). But the greatest cost may be the way it has changed us, the way ithas managed to confuse us about what we really want from the world. Weweren't built just for this life we find ourselves leading--we were builtfor silence and solitude, built for connection with each other and thenatural world, built for so much more than we now settle for. Christmas isthe moment to sense that, the moment to reach for the real joys.