The Problem With Our Giant Piles Of Stuff

Monday, March 5, 2012

Editor’s Note: The author’s house was robbed just hours before this article was published, resulting in the loss of a computer, iPod, camera and various other items. The author plans to next publish an article about what it would be like winning the lottery and finding the cure for cancer.

If you had to get rid of five items in your house, which ones would you ditch? What about twenty? Two hundred? (I hope at this point you haven’t trashed any Batman-related items.) What if you could only own what you could carry on your back?

I thought about this today as I was cleaning my house. I enjoy house cleaning like I enjoy blind surgeons: not at all. And as I was doing it, I was imagining how wonderful it would be to never clean again. I could think of two scenarios where this could become reality. First would be finding the key to the closet where I accidentally locked my maid two years ago. Second would be getting rid of everything I own.

When I was finished cleaning, I stood back and marveled at how much stuff I had accumulated in my four years living here in Guatemala. It didn’t start this way. I arrived with just a backpack and guitar. After spending my last semester of college in Chile, I cast off everything that did not fit in my backpack or guitar case and started hitchhiking northward. Getting rid of all those things ended up being more complicated than initially envisioned, and can be re-lived by reading the mass e-mail I sent out on the subject.

I remember my backpack-and-guitar days fondly. It felt good to feel completely self contained. But eventually my backpack, guitar and I came to what has turned into a four-year stopover in Guatemala. In that time my pile of stuff has grown. Now it would probably take a few pickup loads to transport my stuff from here to there. My books alone would take several mules (I should have gotten that Kindle four years ago).

Even when I’m not cleaning (which is all the time), having all these things kind of stresses me out. I don’t plan on living in Guatemala my whole life and don’t even want to know how much it would cost to ship all of this stuff elsewhere. (My guess is about as much as it would cost to buy a spaceship.)

George Carlin was thinking along similar lines when he said, “A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff.”

So what happens if you just walk away from your pile of stuff?

Well, your plants die. But plants don’t like to be in captivity anyways. They want to be outside in the forest or on the range where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the sky is not cloudy all day.

backpackSo aside from your plants (who hate you anyways) your stuff doesn’t need you. You need it. Actually, you spent a big chunk of time earning money to get that stuff. But are you really happy with all that stuff? Is there an alternative? Could anyone really get by permanently without a bunch of stuff? (Aside of course from Chester, the bum who lives in your alley.)

Well, lots of pimp people throughout history have shed the burden of owning things and set off into the world living off their wits: Kerouac, Jesus, Buddha, Thoreau, That Other Buddha, T.E. Lawrence (camels don’t count as stuff) . . . the list goes on.

All these people probably realized what that Buddha guy realized, which is that while we may own our things, we often can’t imagine life without things. So we base our lives around protecting our stuff, acquiring more stuff and protecting that stuff.

In his weekly “The Backpacker” column, Ben Groundwater of The Sydney Morning Herald’s recently wrote about his disillusionment at being owned by his things. Every time he travels abroad he thinks the same thought: “I own too much junk. Too much junk that I don’t need.” It’s when he is abroad that he really begins thinks he should “[g]ive it all away. Live more frugally. Never worry about losing stuff, because [he’d than] have no stuff to lose.”

But Groundwater admits, somewhat regretfully, that when he returns he falls into a familiar rut of buying new stuff and retaining the old.

And this is quite the paradox. While much of the world is worrying about how they are going to acquire things to, you know, eat and survive, those us in the first world spend out time bemoaning our ownership of stuff that most of the world will never have.

A simple reality remains: We are the ones with the choice. He concludes his article by griping about things he’s decided to do while abroad but still hasn’t. “I’ve decided to watch less TV, because I really don’t need it. But still haven’t. I’ve decided to take a photography course. But still haven’t. I’ve decided to do some simple volunteer work for a charity. But still haven’t.”

But you, I and Ben can do all these things. We, the privileged, can basically do anything we want, including owning a bunch of shit we don’t need while having existential crises about owning that shit.

And while getting rid of everything we own is an extreme way to go, we can adopt a perspective that loosens the hold our stuff has on us. We can strive to minimize our consumer-driven buying, and with every new purchase we can ask the crucial question, “Do I really need this? Could the money be better spent elsewhere? Could I use it to help someone else?”

In the end the most important thing to do is be grateful for what we have and realize just how lucky we are to have it. And that if we don’t want it, remember, it’s optional and someone else probably does. If we ever get to the point that our stuff begins to bring us more pain than joy, then we should simply walk away from it. I’d be very Zen of us, and according to that way of thinking, a path towards the cessation of suffering, a path towards bliss.

[Photo Credit: Jon Wick’s Kitchen]

By Luke Armstrong

TheExpeditioner

About the Author

LukeArmstrongAfter setting out to hitchhike from Chile to Alaska Luke Maguire Armstrong stopped in Guatemala where he spent four years directing the social service programs of the charity Nuestros Ahijados. He is the curator of the high energy humor site, Rabble Rouse The World, and his book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on Amazon.com) is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (Follow Luke on Twitter: @lukespartacus).

  • When you travel, you have fantastic experiences despite having few things with you and this makes you realise that “stuff” won’t fulfill you and happiness is found in experiences. There’s nothing wrong with buying and owning things, but we have to make sure they don’t become distractions from finding the experiences that really make us rich.

    • TheExpeditioner

      So true, I definitely agree with that sentiment.

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