“How many things are there which I do not want?”SOCRATES
Last week, a friend and I were talking about his latest renovations. He told me that he had bought the necessary supplies and completed the work, but that two weeks later he found some quantities of the things he needed, which he had bought for a previous task, packed away a box which lay in amongst a pile of other boxes. And we laughed, and laughed at how we acquire things, put them somewhere and then forget about them. Stuff.
George Carlin, has a lovely, if abrasive, skit about stuff, about our propensity to accumulate, and then have to make space to store what we collect. In the conversation last week, I told my friend that I was in the position where I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to cleanse myself of those things that I’d thoughtlessly stored away in spaces just in case I might need them again one day.
One method I have been told about for dealing with stuff is to donate it or recycle any item that we haven’t used in a year. I like this idea, because it allows us to cycle through all the seasons and all the celebrations, all the occasions where we might use something that is otherwise stored away
What I like more, however, is exploring the reasons why I might make a purchase, or hold onto something that has been given to me or that I have found in my beachcombing. I like to ask myself the question “why am I going to acquire this?”
Many years ago, I left the shores of my birthplace with two suitcases of my belongings and, in a few weeks, my family and I are about to do the same. We are going to live in a new land and all we are taking is two suitcases each. We will have to buy things once we get there, but this will be done so with purpose, with a clear awareness that what we purchase will be necessary to live our lives there and then. And this has forced us to be thoughtful, judicious, and we have culled.
Why do we collect so much stuff that gets hidden away? I am not talking about those luxuries, such as the celebratory dinner setting which we will use on a special occasion. These are things that we keep track of, that we know are there, and that we know why they are part of our collection. Of course, there is no need for such items (except maybe for religious or other culturally significant reasons), and so we can even consider such stuff as redundant. Far more significant are the three sweaters that have been sitting in the box for the last eight years, or the menagerie of rusty screws in an old coffee can in the shed that, frankly, have only ever been added to. Why do they need to be there? The sweaters are well worn, and the screws are remnants of past projects, but they haven’t seen the light of day until I opened their containers just before. The short answer is – they don’t. But why did I put them there in the first place? I suppose, at the time, I thought I might use them again one day. But I replaced the sweaters, and the screws just kept on increasing in number, so why did I keep them then? Why did I defer this choice until now?
We rationalise well such choices to keep things that we no longer need.
We might have the space to do so, though I would ask why we need this extra space to keep such unloved items. Even if we didn’t have the space, we might find somewhere, oh the clutter, to put them just in case we might need them, but who can tell how tomorrow might turn? We have sunk money or effort into them and we are loathe to part with this sunken cost, even though we have no practical reason for doing so. So we put things in places and hold onto them.
One thing that intrigues me is the question of how our minds are working when we acquire stuff. We look through flyers and are drawn to things that have “sale” emblazoned on them. We do so not because we need them, if this was the case we would have them already. We do so because we expect that one day we might need them, or because we convince ourselves that we will use them; like the avocado slicer that is way in the back of the second drawer. We might buy items on our travels to remind us of that time, but then after a while we don’t display them and that memory is supplanted by others, that memory is left to fade. We might be lured by changing fashion and, rather than rotate our belongings, we hold onto the old just in case they come back in style. This tells me a lot about how we might regard the world. It tells me that we tend to consider the world as stable, with some predictability. But it isn’t so.
A few months ago, my fifty-year-old cousin suffered a stroke. Recently he commented that, if he had his time again, he would “…smile more, enjoy the simple things in life more, travel to live, help people in general, appreciate…” None of these things, none of these are concerned with collecting stuff.
We live in a consumer culture. Increasing credit card debt (I note the drop in debt during the pandemic – likely due to unemployment), growing storage facilities, and holiday shopping crushes are all evidence of this. We do so because we believe that it will make our lives better, and we do so at the expense of other ways in which we might find the enrichment we need. While there is evidence that materialists with very high incomes are approaching the life satisfaction of those who are not materially driven, this also comes at the social costs raised by the concentration of wealth.
When I consider all the things that we do have lying around, orphaned from their purpose, I consider the waste that exists. For every one of those items that I have acquired I have had to work to earn the money to do so. What if, rather than work towards this, I had dedicated my time to somewhere else, someone else? What if, rather than spend ten dollars on something that gave me, the solitary me, fleeting pleasure, I curbed my desire, and donated this money to someone else? What if, instead of enjoying a lavish meal alone I scaled down and shared with someone? What if, once I had chosen to replace an item with something new, for whatever reason, I had donated the original to someone in need, or to a thrift store?
My two bags are sitting inside as I write this. I have identified what is essential and what isn’t. One contains all of the equipment I need to pursue my love of climbing and the other is full of the set of clothing I have chosen to take with me. I have also arranged those remaining few treasured belongings that hold personal significance into a little pile that will easily fit into my cabin bag. As I collected those final few pieces, I considered the question of what I would save if I only had a few moments to do so – you know, the “your house is on fire” scenario. It was rather easy to decide because they were already there in that little pile.
The rest of the items that were hidden away, and some that were in plain sight and that I decided that I did not need anymore, have all found a new home. Hopefully, whoever acquires them will enjoy them.
I am fortunate enough to have some wealth, earned and saved through years of work. Yes, I have been guilty of purchasing things that I don’t need but, by and large, this has never really been my pursuit. I have never wanted lavish surroundings, have never aspired to be a property mogul, and have been careful to try and use my resources to purchase a smaller amount of items that will last, rather than be a part of a throw-away society.
And this allows me to use the resources I have in ways which will impact not just myself but those around me too and that way is to focus on experiences rather than collecting stuff. The most impactful part of doing so is not that we feel better, but if we direct ourselves to experiences we are more likely to be a more grateful person.
This directing of our wealth and our time is even more powerful in terms of such well-being if we connect it with other people. Make your experiences social and go out of your way to do so if that is what is required. Spend money on others – send a gift just because, and consider who you are sharing your wealth with – some need it more than others.
As I leave here with almost no possessions, this is my intent, to live experiences and share them as I can. This is what I want to do, and I will.