I like to walk about among the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty. – George Santayana
I’ve recently become engrossed with a show on A&E called Hoarders. Hoarding, as defined by the Mayo clinic, is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter.
On the show, the camera pans the inside of the hoarders’ residences, revealing stacks upon stacks of useless crap which invade all surfaces like a plague of locusts, making it impossible to find anything, move, or even function.
The reason I find this show so intriguing is because I seem to enjoy the opposite affliction. I dumped the majority of my worldly possessions in 2007 after deciding to become a nomad. I felt liberated. It was like cleaning up a part of my life that I didn’t know was a mess.
Now, I religiously clean out my backpack, on a mission to eliminate anything that’s not useful. A shirt I haven’t worn in a few weeks, a half-opened Band-Aid, a hair product that’s only half used is immediately given away or thrown out. Finding anything that’s unnecessarily taking up space and cluttering my life seriously makes me feel icky.
And the truth is, I never miss what I get rid of. 99% of the time, I don’t even remember what it was that I tossed out.
But Back In The Day…
I wasn’t always like this. I was that girl browsing the internet looking for things to spend money on. That’s me in the mall on Friday afternoon, looking for a new tube top to buy to wear to the club later that night (because my other 20 wouldn’t do). That’s my closet full of Guess purses.
I’m not even sure what or when the moment of inspiration came. I don’t recall the reasoning behind the official possession purge, other than the fact that I just didn’t want to deal with a bunch of garbage when (or if) I came back.
And the initial change wasn’t the start of a new lifestyle. In New Zealand, I picked up lots of new possessions only to deal with the frustration of getting rid of the useless things I had accumulated before moving on to my next destination.
A year later, in Australia, I made quite a bit of money and spent it all on clothes, products, and excessive consumption – again.
Next, I spent a month in Indonesia hauling my wheeled suitcase bursting at the seams down pot-holed roads and up flights of ferry stairs, otherwise being miserable and feeling burdened with the huge sack of crap I was carrying.
When I arrived to Bangkok, I had had enough. I went down to Khao San Road and bought a 45-liter backpack for $40 (which is still my BFF over two years later). Then I did a serious purge of my measly backpacker possessions. Though on a much smaller scale this time, it was a more meaningful process. I made an intentional decision to stop the crap collecting.
The Cultural Curse
Governments are deemed to succeed or fail by how well they make money go round, regardless of whether it serves any useful purpose. They regard it as a sacred duty to encourage the country’s most revolting spectacle: the annual feeding frenzy in which shoppers queue all night, then stampede into the shops, elbow, trample and sometimes fight to be the first to carry off some designer junk which will go into landfill before the sales next year. The madder the orgy, the greater the triumph of economic management. – George Monbiot
One of the saddest and most irritating things about modern culture is the ever-present message of consumerism. BUY. SPEND. You need things to be complete. Success is directly correlated to the number and quality of your possessions. Consume. Consume. Consume.
And we swallow it like a spoonful of sugar fed to us by Mary Poppins.
It takes a seriously concentrated effort to not be affected. When I went back to Tampa for six months between my Asia trip and Latin America, I felt like an alien. My (former) friends spoke about thousand-dollar purses and designer sunglasses. A couple of months before that, I had been on a 9-hour journey on the worst road I’ve ever experienced, getting a first-hand look at the absolute poverty of the Laotian people.
It was hard for my brain to process both realities existing on the same planet. I really couldn’t relate to why talking about brand names would be important, interesting, or even relevant. The function of a purse is to carry belongings – does a Prada purse carry things better than a handmade one?
After a month of trying to reintegrate, I conceded into my room and basically didn’t come out for the next five months. I was determined to not forget everything I had learned, to block the toxic cultural influences that make people think their worth is determined by their possessions.
Is It Just Me?
I asked three of my favorite bloggers for their thoughts on the role of possessions in their lives.
I’ve never really had many possessions at any point during my life. Ever since 1999, when I left the US for my first solo backpacking trip shortly after graduating from university, I’ve literally been living out of my backpack. There have definitely been times over the years that I wished I had more stuff, but usually such feelings subside as soon as I remember how much freedom I have as a result of all my possessions fitting inside of my 40 Liter Kelty Redwing pack.
I’ll often say that the biggest benefit of not owning much is the ability one enjoys to just pick up and go, anywhere, at any time. There’s no house to worry about, no car to sell, no furniture to put in storage and no shelves of trinkets to deal with. There’s just a handful of items to stuff into a backpack.
And that freedom is something that I don’t want to give up. So the thought of accumulating more possessions right now is not even one that I consider. In fact, the more I travel and the more I am able to survive with so few things, the more I realize how little stuff one actually needs in order to live a fulfilling life.
I met an old sailor in Guatemala who told me that he had to give up living on a boat because of the continuous mental drain that it caused. “When you have a sailboat, it is your home, and it becomes an obsession,” he told me, “whenever you leave it you are worried about if it is ok, you always have to repair it, it becomes an obsession.” He then went on to imply that the stresses involved in owning, living, and traveling on a sailboat put stress on his marriage and eventually lead to divorce.
It is true, dynamic possessions can become an obsession. I know how closely I monitor my meager possessions on the road, and I know that if I had anything of real worth that was incredibly important for my day to day symbiosis, that it would probably take over my mind. Rather, I find that I inherently steer clear of such obsession-creating dynamic possessions, as I do not want to be owned by that which I own: the less things you have the less you need to worry about things.
My possessions had become chains around my life, tying me down physically and mentally, each one holding hostage large swaths of my time and preventing me from choosing how I wanted to live my life.
Each possession represented a choice, a decision to commit part of my life towards its usage, storage, and maintenance and combined, my possessions created the definition for how I chose to live my life.
When I took a step back and realized those possessions represented the exact opposite of how I wanted to live – simple, sustainable, free, and mobile – I knew the only option was to get rid of them.
Nothing really belongs to us, not even our bodies. For the short time we are here, we’re simply the caretakers. Realizing this reality has freed me from so many wants and needs. I no longer feel incomplete. I no longer feel the desire to ‘own’ things. My search for happiness has turned inward and I have discovered an incredible source of peace, beauty, wonder, and potential.
What’s Your Take?
Have you ever asked yourself why you buy that 40th shirt, that 20th pair of pants, that knickknack to stick on the shelf? Is it because you’re bored? Are you trying to impress someone? Did you earn a little extra money recently? Maybe you’re on the instant gratification kick?
Have you ever asked yourself what else you could be doing with your hard-earned money besides investing in excess? Could you deposit it into a savings account? Put a drop in the bucket for achieving a life-long dream, like traveling the world perhaps?
It’s unsettling to think of all the things I’ve wasted my money on. I’ve probably spent enough to go on an African safari, a cruise to Antarctica, or used it to open up a chill café in a city. Instead, it’s been thrown away on a bunch of dead, forgettable possessions.
Living in a way in which consciousness is applied to the purchase of items takes vigilance. It is not a one-time decision where you clean out your garage and live a mess-free life happily ever after. Oh, no. Your friend might show off a cute little something or other that makes you stomach churn with envy. You might see the latest gadget advertised on TV that would be so fun to play with. Or you may just be bored one day and decide to go shopping to cure it, instead of putting energy into achieving something great.
Who’s in control of your life – you or your things? Share your thoughts here.