Who’s In Control: You Or Your Possessions?

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.

Possessions… Ewww

backpacking

my trusty backpack

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.

Wandering Earl:

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.

Wade from Vagabond Journey says:

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.

Raam Dev:

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.

  • Thank you for the opportunity to contribute, Jasmine!

    The theme I sense from Earl, Wade, and yourself is that getting rid of possessions allows us to focus on the more important things in life, whatever they may be.

    When we have more possessions than we really need, we’re forced to dedicate some of our attention (and therefore some of our life) towards those possessions. Getting rid of them opens us up to experiencing more.

    The things we can buy are least likely to enhance our life and bring meaning to it, whereas everything else seems to have a much greater chance of doing just that (experiences, relationships, etc.).

  • I’ve always been a proponent of minimalist travel. Physical possessions are transient, temporary and insubstantial. If we strive to collect experiences instead, we become more fulfilled and ultimately better people.

    Long-term travel in particular is a lifestyle that benefits from minimalism. It’s the unencumbered soul who doesn’t have to think before jumping at the first opportunity for growth or adventure.

  • Thanks for adding your input, I knew you’d be a great person to ask :)

    I guess I really don’t understand why the obsession with material goods. In my life, I’ve noticed that the more things I have, the more things I want, and I’ve yet to meet a person with a lot of money who’s said: I finally have everything I could ever need or want! I’m done buying!

    Fulfillment is obviously not achievable through material goods…

  • So true. I once met a girl from Russia who was traveling with only a day pack, in which contained one shirt and a camera. Though she didn’t smell that great, I was envious of the fact that she could travel so freely.

  • I can’t believe that this is the first time I’ve come across your blog – my loss, but I intend to catch up!

    I think that your title says it all.  I think it’s our attitude to our possessions rather than the having of them per se.  The bible is supposed to tell us that money is the root of all evil apparently, but my understanding is that that is a huge misquote, that it should be the “love of money” is the root of all evil. I think it’s the same with possessions.  I think it’s ok to have them – if that’s your thing – so long as you are prepared to let go.  Yes, “nothing really belongs to us”, so long as we know that, and we are happy to deal with the problems ownership implies, then why not? You could argue that your friends who are buying designer goods are helping to keep the economy afloat, but I know just what you mean, I’ve had similar experiences.

    I totally agree that worship of designer names is bad, if something is bought simply for that reason.  Some expensive things are worth the money because they last and give good service. However, if we all stop buying stuff what happens to the people who produce it all?  I am making an assumption but think there is probably ultimately more money spent by the millions who buy fake designer stuff than the rich few who buy the real thing, but without the designer label the fakies wouldn’t exist.  I don’t know, it’s a complex subject when you begin to really get into it.  I did a short piece on it the other day, and came to the conclusion that it’s your personal attitude which counts. Afterall, 6 billion people can’t all be traipsing around the world at the same time, it just isn’t feasible, and when we settle we generally begin to acquire stuff.  

    Personally, after dejunking (or whatever the fashionable word for it is) some years ago, I live much more simply than I used to, but I don’t at all resent my friends who have chosen to live differently, though I did drop the ones who were obsessed with possession and status, yes. 

    I go back to the fact that you said it all in your title.

  • The Father

    If you wrote a book about that, or maybe an audio self-help series or some motivational photos about that I’d definitely buy one of each….maybe a T-Shirt that says “down with materialism” ooh..double pun… ;)

  • I think the intention behind the purchase is really critical, and many spend money mindlessly without asking themselves why or is it necessary. After I started traveling, I began to see with a more global perspective, and it’s difficult to think about the “haves” throwing their money away on junk with little value in their life while the “have-nots” are dying due to starvation, malnourishment, and lack of access to clean water.

    Imagine what the world would be like if instead of making that next purchase, the money was donated to a good cause?

    You’re right, it’s an extremely complex subject, and I’m definitely not educated in the field of economics. Maybe I’m just a closet communist? :)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • The only way you could obtain the shirt is to donate 5 shirts to a charity. Are you down with that? :)

  • Jenna

    Oh man, I’m going through the same realization/life purge right now that you did before you took off. It sure is shameful thinking of all the resources and money I’ve wasted on consumption that ultimately just made me feel even less fulfilled than I was… so much for the “stuff = success” philosophy our society would have us believe.
    I can only aspire to have so few possessions as you sometime in the future! Congrats on coming a long way and not letting the US culture get to you. Thousand-dollar purses, indeed…

  • Thanks Jenna :) The only thing we can do now is start making purchase decisions in a more conscious manner and continue to evolve on that level.

  • I made the decision in my early twenties to follow my life-long dream to sail around the world.

    The only possible way someone in their early 20’s (without a lot of money!!!!!) is able to undertake such an endeavor is by DOWNSIZING.  That means a VERY small boat, in my case, twenty-six feet long.

    Now, you can imagine, a twenty-six foot boat does not have much room for anything more than what you absolutely need!  Thus I learned through necessity, the skills of living SIMPLY.

    After 15,000 miles and four years around the Pacific (only made it half way around the world….) I sold my boat in Guam and moved ashore with ALL of my worldly and meaningful possessions. 

    EVERYTHING fit into a large military style (my new room-mate was a U.S. Navy officer) duffle bag!!!  I was quite surprised and had exactly the same realizations or a-ha moments you are now having.

    In regards to Wade’s take on the old sailor in Guatemala…. I met several dudes like him in my travels and in my opinion they only had themselves to blame for their relationship “problems”.  I also met many, many happy couples and other relatively well adjusted guys who were able to deal with the very real stresses of living and cruising on sailboats he described.

    It’s been several years and many more adventures since then, but I STILL live my life with the same simplicity, and I am very glad for it.

  • Sounds like an epic journey Dave. Good to know your downsizing experience still effects you positively today. I hope I’ll be able to maintain my intentions of living simpler for years to come.

  • Justin

    I have a kit. 2 bags one army ruck sack and one smaller bag with my food and 1 change of cloths. Most of the things in the ruck sack are only for survival, building shelters making fire cooking ect. I have a fully furnished apartment and bla bla bla. I would love for someone to come in and buy it all. I don’t need the money I was medically retired from the army last year so I get a pay check no matter where I go. I just want to be free. SOMEONE COME TAKE MY STUFF

    I am fulfilled tho I am happy that I can walk into just about any part of the world and make a home wherever I am. I know how and have the supplies to do it. 

    I spend money like a child I give myself an allowance and that is what I spend $50 a week. 
    Next week I’m buying a new Leather-man multi tool since my last one grew legs and walked away. 

    I don’t see people that are happy when I go shopping I see girls trying to be the prom queen and I see the boys trying to impress the girls. It doesn’t matter what they are doing this is the bottom line. I don’t dress up to go anywhere and if I can get away without wearing shoes all the better. I don’t care what anyone see’s when they look at me because no one can know me from a glance I don’t care that I don’t fit in because in reality everyone that thinks I’m weird is just a programmed consummerism cow I know myself I know my needs and I see wants for what they are.

    Picture this 
    You wake up and get ready to go to work you get in your box care and go to your job in a box you come back home to a box and you sit on your butt and watch a box till it’s time to go lay down on your box spring and mattress. 

    When I finish my college degree either in this box or in a tent my nomad self will load up my Jeep and go. 

  • I look forward to hearing about your adventures outside of the box post graduation

  • Anonymous

    I love your blog. You should consider doing a post detailing the items you carry in your backpack. I’m guessing a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries, water bottle, small flashlight, rain jacket, etc. It would be interesting to see, as I plan on doing a South America trip over the next year or so with a 50 liter backpack as my sole companion.

  • Thanks Aaron :) I have about 7-8 days’ worth of clothes (repeating bottoms of course), a couple of bathing suits, toiletries, flip flops and sneakers, some bracelets and trinkets that people have given me along the way, electronics… pretty standard. I’m not practical enough to have a flashlight or rain jacket though :)

  • Raf Kiss

    Great post!!

    My own equivalent of breaking free was giving up everything I had in Belgium, including my well paid job in the Venture Capital industry, and move to Brazil to start a motorcyIe travel business…

    I’m living here now with a Brazilian partner who has two children, so a backpacker lifestyle is not really possible, but compared to my life in Belgium, I have WAY less stuff. Still too much though… the most important thing is: I’m living my life the way I was dreaming about it while I had my 9 to 5 office job…

    Success on your travels… I’ll be following from a distance :o)

    Raf

  • Raf, the important thing is that you followed your dreams, something that too few people take the risk to do. Thanks for visiting :)

  • Jasmine, after reading your stuff, I love your blog.  There are things I gree with you on and things I disagree with you on yet I find you incredibly fascinating!  In many ways, you remind me of myself at a younger age.  You are passionate, hold strong to your beliefs, and feel the same way I do about many things.

    As for this post, I agree and disagree with you.  Possessions are fine to have as long as they don’t own you.  While I do have the things you mention (car, house, job, TV), I am not owned by any of these.  Agree with your thoughts about materialism and buying the nicest things – it pisses me off to see people who feel they have to own that stuff.   I don’t get it.

    My car is 12 years old.  And that’s only because the one that was 15 years old was totaled in an accident.  I don’t have debt (except for a house) and am free to spend my money on anything I want – yet I don’t because spending money on many things is a complete waste.  The clothes I wear, many are 10 years old because it fits and still looks decent. 

    I think there are things I splurge on as do you.  I have interests and activities that I enjoy because they are who I am.  However, I don’t spent money ob buying and owning crap.  So this is where we are different – I feel it is OK to own things as long as they don’t own or control you.  Where we agree is that most of the stuff people choose to buy or pursue is a waste of time.

  • It doesn’t sound like we disagree much… you say you don’t buy money on crap, I say owning crap is totally wasteful. I think it’s normal to collect things if you’re based from one place but there’s a difference between owning a reasonable amount and spending money on things just because.

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  • Discover Colombia

    we all do it. i have shed 90% of my possessions since taking to the road in 2005. my next trip to colombia, i will be bringing two suitcases of clothes i no longer wear for people who need them. nice report.

  • I came across your blog while during research for a current episode of a children’s television series I produce.  This episode “Coins and Tunnels” presents our main character with the decision to protect and obsess over a found coin, or choose the discovery of life’s daily journey and allow his life to be a contribution to others.  Just so you know . . . Your comments and those who have offered their personal observations has helped to shape various aspects of this new episode.  Keep up the good work and continue to share your knowledge and experiences with others.    Steve Treague / The BURNNIE Show

  • Hi Jasmine, I just discovered you blog today whilst looking how to travel from Tobago to Trinidad by boat – although on your advice maybe the plane is better! This post reminded me of a quote from a supporter of the charity I work for, who had saved up for quite some time to make a donation towards our work. She said that she had been trying to live increasingly by her fathers mantra which was: “Live simply, so others may simply live”. Hence wanted to donate the money rather than spend on just stuff. Inspiring! Lucie.

  • Thanks for stopping by and your kind words Lucie! Enjoy the twin islands :)

  • Ana Gabriella

    Excellent post… good to see people letting go and achieving what they want… Im in the process of letting go and its not as easy as I would like… Lived in Asia for a year and never been the same since I got back…. So far managing to live without a TV, bed, cooker,fridge or furniture… The hardest thing to let go are clothes are nick nacks…. Looking at getting it all into a 50ltr backpack and keeping important docs on the cloud…

    Where will I go? I dont know yet, but Im 40, female, single and debt free….. Its a great inspiration to see you doing what you want…. Ill be on my way before the end of the year… but this damm emotional attachment to my job and a monthly income will be the hardest to let go off… Good Luck….