Monday, March 10, 2008

The tyranny of "stuff"

Stuff. In America, we have a LOT of it. In fact, we have so much, we often pay people extra to store it for us. "Self Storage" places are everywhere.

We're so attached to our "stuff" that we understand and validate stories like this:

"I know of one couple who couldn't retire to the town they preferred because they couldn't afford a place there big enough for all their stuff..."

How horrifying. To NOT retire to your dream area because you're so attached to your "things" that you need to be sure that they have a nice place to live.

Being in a place where I'm remodeling my world view and psychology, I see both sides of this. The American consumer in me understands on an emotional level this attachment to stuff. Intellectually, I can acknowledge that it makes no sense at all, and is, in fact, outdated.

I read an interesting article a week or so ago about our attitude towards "stuff" and how it's outdated. The author made a good point - go back and look at old pictures. From the 40's, 50's, 60's and even into the 70's - don't look at the people, look at the backgrounds. Notice how empty the houses are. There is a distinct *lack* of "stuff". If you look at old houses, from around the turn of the century, you'll find they didn't have closets in the bedroom. There was no need for them - stuff was rare and valuable and often everything a person owned would fit nicely into a trunk or chest of drawers.

But then something happened. Record players became common. Followed by the 8 track. Now you could own music and other things that had previously been radio only for most folks. This was followed quickly by cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVD, Computers and computer software and cheap crap from sweatshops in far away places. "Stuff" was no longer rare and valuable, it was all over, easy to find, cheap to acquire and always (in the back of our minds, anyway) useful!

Except...our attitudes about "stuff" didn't change. In our heads, we still think of stuff as "rare and valuable", even though it isn't.

I'm guilty of this - big time. In the past, I've paid $80 a month, for a year, to store things that I had been in boxes for the 2 years prior. Round numbers, adding tax, we're talking $1000 to store things I hadn't used for years, and as it turns out, didn't use for years after that. If I want to be totally honest about the cost, I paid an extra $50 a month in rent to have a garage to store my extra "stuff" after that. So total is $1600.

My lease ends on 4/30 - and you can bet I'm dropping that extra $50 a month from my rent.

That's a side benefit to my real purpose. My real purpose is to "detach" from my stuff. Somewhere along the line, I, like most Americans, stopped owning "stuff" and started to be owned by my "stuff". This is not an acceptable state of affairs. At this point in my journey, I'm vaguely aware that there's a balance between having things and not having things, and appropriate and inappropriate relationships to things. I'm not sure where the line is, but I know I'm way over it. Better, then, to have not enough attachment than too much. That is my thinking, so it was time to act.

I spent this weekend going through my things in boxes in the garage. I'm not done, but it's a start. The idea is to get rid of everything that won't fit into my apartment. I'm also going through my apartment and getting rid of anything that doesn't fit some simple criteria:

1) Do I use it at least once a month?
2) Is it irreplaceable?
3) Does it have a specific purpose that makes it useful?

Honestly, I had to "create" category 3 when I realized that my plunger wasn't irreplaceable, and that I hadn't used it in over a year. It's one of those things that you just have to have, even if you aren't using it. Many of my tools also fit into that category, but I've had to tread lightly to be sure that I don't use it to "protect" things that should go.

I've scratched the surface, I'm really not sure how far into the process I've gotten. I know that there was one full car load and then about a quarter car load that's gone to Goodwill already. Yes, I got a receipt - on one hand, the spiritual journey requires I detach from my stuff and stop seeing it as valuable. On the other hand, I'm trying to learn fiscal responsibility, and living in the real world it's silly not to take the $700 or so in tax deductions (and recoup some of the $1600 I've wasted storing this crap!).

The other thing I struggled a little with is what to do with the "stuff" that has value to other people. Yes, I'm perfectly OK with looking at my collection of Magic: The Gathering cards as ink on paper to be thrown away, but I also know that I can trade them for Government Issued Ink on Paper. In the end, I see no reason not to sell what I can. I'm not going to any great lengths - some stuff (trading cards and "collectible" hobby items) will go to local shops, some stuff (a few small furniture items) will go to Craig's list, and the rest (Software, games, DVDs, watches) will go on Ebay. Again, I may as well recoup some of the expense of carting this stuff around.

At the end of the weekend, I feel lighter than I did at the beginning. I still have a ways to go to get to where I want to be with my "stuff". Another issue that's come up while I've been working on this is my relationship with my "space". There's a whole 'nother post coming about the re-arranging of my apartment....

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