My Struggle with Stuff

I’m a hoarder by nature.  Not a ‘reality television, can’t move around in my house and as a result they are taking me away’ kind of hoarder, but a ‘you never know when you might need it’ type.  I’m hesitant to get rid of things for an abundance of reasons, real and imagined.  As a result, the natural trend in my house is to gradually accumulate more and more things over time, unless there is a concerted effort to counteract it.

When my wife and I returned from our last big trip, where we each lived out of a small backpack for 10 months, our home and the stuff in it were overwhelming.  The space was simultaneously refreshing (after many months in tiny rooms) but also daunting.  Our stuff, unused and unmissed for most of a year, seemed excessive and overpowering.

Currently, we have our possessions in a storage facility.  For your information, virtually everything we own squeezes into a space 10 feet wide by 30 feet long by 10 feet high.  The combined accumulations of our lifetimes fit into 3000 cubic feet.  I figure that’s at least 1000 cubic feet more than it should be.  I think our stuff could be down-sized considerably.  Ironically, we pay a non-trivial amount of money each month to store and insure these unused belongings.  Over the anticipated period of storage, we will have paid thousands of dollars to store things that we don’t need, and yet didn’t get around to purging before we left.

I feel like George Carlin in his famous comedy routine with stuff strung out all over the world.  I have a house (currently rented) with a few possessions inside.  The bulk of my stuff is in storage 10 kilometers from that house, and I have some things on loan or stored at the homes of 4 different friends over a 40 kilometer radius (can you believe it?).  While traveling, I have a carefully selected subset of my things with me, the majority of which are stored in the S&M Motel.   But I was staying in a guest house in Germany for a week, where I had some of this stuff spread across 3 rooms (bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen).  And, when I left for the day, I took a backpack of only the most critical items with me.  I’m a bit like an intercontinental rodent with stuff squirreled away across several time zones.  The time and effort to manage this pack train seems silly.  Reconsolidating and organizing my things, should I ever choose to do it, would require 5 to 15 days of solid effort and thousands of dollars.  But paring my stuff down to what I really need would require even more effort and likely some emotional trauma.

While traveling, and to a great extent while we’re at home, the things that I use on a regular basis are pretty basic – clothes, toiletries, the items necessary to sleep and eat, and a few things that I use for recreation.  My needs are simple and few.  My wants are unbounded, ever increasing, potentially unsatisfying, and move constantly out of reach.

Distinguishing between a need and want is often a challenge.  I need air, water, food, clothing, shelter, and security.  Pretty much everything else is a want –- house, car, bicycle, television, etc.  My wants often include things that I confuse with needs — e.g. “I need a car”, “I need a job”, even “I need my spouse”, or the famous and often repeated advertising slogan, “I need a vacation”.  These are all wants, and I find it useful to remind myself of this fact, in the same way that I find it useful to remember that some things are privileges rather than rights.

For much of my life I have been too materialistic, having more concern for material things than spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or cultural values.  I want there to more to my life than ‘more’.  It is better to emphasize other, more important areas of growth such as thought, feelings, relationships, nature, philosophy, the arts, sport, and science.  There are paths of progress other than growth, expansion, and conquest.  e.g. peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, beauty, a healthy sustainable environment, family, friendships, community, meaningful work, leisure time, good health, fun, and making significant contributions that help others.

Research has shown that having lots of stuff doesn’t buy happiness, in the same way that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it can perhaps rent it for a while).  The spice I get from buying things dissipates rapidly, leaving the aftertaste of reality again, but now with an added dollop of remorse.  So I’m frustrated with consumerism, a preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods, even though I sometimes get swept up in it.  Shopping should be neither recreation nor sport undertaken for the short-lived high it provides me.

The trend to bigger houses, vacation properties, larger and more cars, and more stuff to fill all of them seems to be never ending.  The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950’s.  I too have a big house.  This has occurred during a period of growth and general prosperity (despite how much people complain about the economy) but has also been achieved at the expense of more work, more stress, and less family time.

Having a lot of stuff also conflicts with my desire to sustain the planet.  It’s contrary to the first item in ‘Reduce, Re-Use, Re-Cycle”.  Even if I buy things used or made of recycled materials, it still requires a lot of resources to make, house, and heat them.  Like many of us, I had a whole room in my house full of junk that I never used.  On this topic, if you haven’t seen the short video The Story of Stuff, I highly recommend it.

George Carlin was accurate when he compared one’s house to a waste processing facility.  New stuff comes in the front door where it is cherished (or hopefully at least used) for a while in the core rooms of the home (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, family room).  Eventually that stuff makes its way to the lesser rooms of the home (guest room, junk room, etc.) before finally arriving in the garage, the last stop on the way to the garbage heap.  Everything is a consumable item, some just take longer to consume than others.

Some might say that I’m “the pot calling the kettle black”, because I spent most of my adult life trying to acquire resources, and now that I have some, proclaim that this is somehow a baser pursuit.  To this I say, you might be right.  I now have the luxury to place more of my focus on other things and I am being critical of some of the very behaviours that got me to this point in my life.  This is true.  I am struggling to free myself from the rat race of acquisition and retention.

Like it or not, as we age, we all begin a process, gradual or otherwise, of downsizing our stuff.  With many seniors this can be sudden and traumatic when they can no longer live on their own and have to give up not only their house but the things that they’ve accumulated over a lifetime.  It is far better to take ownership of this process while I still have the faculties to manage it.  I don’t want to live in an aging shrine to my past life, dreading the day when they come to take it all away.

What do I really own?  At best I am but a temporary custodian of the things around me.  I do not own them any more than the air I breath.  At some point, everything I have will transition to someone else.

You can’t take it with you. Anonymous

This fact is even more apparent in my case because I don’t have children, so I don’t even have the illusion that my things will ‘remain in the family’, the artifice of somehow retaining ownership across generations.  Now, as on our death bed, we own nothing.  And yet they sit there taunting me, costing me money, and filling my space and thoughts…

Do you struggle with stuff?  How do you deal with it?

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13 Responses to My Struggle with Stuff

  1. Werner says:

    Patrick I am struggling with stuff too . . . your stuff. And have just decided to make your and my life simpler but getting rid of it all!!! You will now only have stuff spread over 3 friends houses.

  2. Moe Shandro says:

    Hey guys.

    If you haven’t used, worn, layed on (except a guest room bed), or otherwise used something in a year, it’s time to get rid of it!! Once gone, it won’t be missed! EASY.

    Try this. It really works & your clutter will be diminished substantially.

    Thanks for another entertaining blog.
    Moe & Arlene

  3. Martin says:

    My tips in response to your cogent blog:

    There’s always reasons NOT to give up things e.g. smoking.

    But as you said, you’re a slave to your stuff- get rid of it all, enjoy the freedom,

    Just keep stuff that is of a practical use or produces revenue,

    Don’t be a consumer be a beacon.

    • Martin — You are my inspiration. A light in the darkness. With your guidance, by the time you visit Canada, I’ll have no furniture left for you to sit on! By the way, how come the camper van has 2 rubber mallets?

  4. Barb Wolfe says:

    Every time I get rid of stuff, I think of it as being replaced in my home with air…. so nice. A box of stuff 2′ x 1′ x 3 ‘, stored in the downstairs closet FOREVER because a friend of my son’s was going on a long backpacking trip – who has now returned & picked up their stuff (oh joy! oh rapture!) =6 cubic feet of extra air in my house! I love it! Anyone with “stuff” stored in my house (hello children!!!!), please come and get it so that I may breathe more freely. Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh…….

    • That’s a terrific way to think about it Barb. It’s also great to hear that you have 6 cubic feet of unused space in your house. Perhaps we can store some stuff there? Werner may be feeling cramped. Now if only your children were reading this blog…

  5. Annette says:

    I have been slowly getting rid of “stuff” we really don’t need and after reading your blog have a new found energy to get back into those crowded cupboards and closets.
    We started a new family tradition for Christmas this year. One present per family member and in the stocking, Santa will only bring perishables that won’t clutter for long!!
    As for leaving “material things” for the children. Chances are that there is very little they want.

  6. […] wrote previously about My Struggle with Stuff, my challenges with materialism, consumerism, and accumulation.  Apparently, I’m still thinking […]

  7. bethanyparks says:

    Reblogged this on bethanyparks and commented:
    Awesome….

  8. […] about some topics that I was trying to process (e.g. Coming to terms with an alternative lifestyle, My Struggle with Stuff, Dachau, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow), or where I wanted crystalize […]

  9. […] talking here about buying something that isn’t really required.  That’s a different issue (see My Struggle with Stuff).  I’m referring to buying something that is required, but buying it bigger, better, or […]

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