I wouldn’t call myself a pack rat necessarily, in fact I hate clutter. Our house is always tidy, but I do have a desk I can barely see the surface of because it is covered with piles of paperwork and our garage has way too many plastic storage containers of God knows what. The bottom line is I have too much stuff!
I keep movie, concert and sporting event ticket stubs, thank you cards, wedding invitations, restaurant business cards and other little mementos. I used to put these things lovingly into scrap books, but then I had big bulky scrap books and no where to store them. Plus, they were a pain-in-the-neck to move. Now, these are keepsakes are stuffed in a drawer. I started collecting Christmas decorations back in high school and I haven’t even put up a tree in over five years. That will change, now that I have a child, but you and I both know I don’t need that much holiday cheer. I have more tank tops, pajamas and pairs of jeans than I will ever wear and more books than I will ever read, but I just keep buying more because I love them.
Now that I have a baby, I have baby stuff and lots of it. My latest stuff dilemma is whether I should get rid of the clothes you have outgrown already or keep them in a – you guessed it, plastic storage bin for our next child? And what if I keep them all and we have a girl? Will be be so lucky to have a third and there’s a 50% chance that she’ll be a girl too.
I have so much stuff that my stuff has stuff! I have always known this, but it became a lot more clear when my parents died and my sister and I had to go through not one, but two of their homes full of their stuff. Initially, it was difficult to decide what to do with all of their belongings. We wanted to make sure that everything was carefully sorted through and that the items neither of us wanted were donated to the appropriate places. During this process, which we are still in the middle of, I realized that their stuff…books, photos, dishes, clothes, wall hangings, school supplies, nick knacks, etc. was just that…stuff and it didn’t define them. It wasn’t who they were, it wasn’t what I would remember or carry in my hearts now that they were gone. After having this epiphany, it made it easier to let go of the inanimate objects and in most cases downright junk! After all, how many water bottles, beach towels, or hammers does one household need anyway?
I know I’m not alone, I think most people in America have too much stuff. We are painfully addicted to buying new stuff and with each new purchase we consume more non-renewable resources, pollute the planet, and create lots of garbage. Why?
Over the years, stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven’t changed correspondingly. We overvalue stuff.
The worst kind of stuff is the stuff we own that we consider “too good” to use…our fine china, overpriced perfume, expensive pearls, good linens, Tiffany wine glasses, all the stuff we save for when family comes to visit or special occasions. What are we saving it for? It’s just sitting there collecting dust and it’s all replaceable if broken.
The better question is, how did this affair we all have with stuff get started?
Orion magazine’s excellent article by Jeffrey Kaplan, titled, The Gospel of Consumption, sheds some light on the problem’s history. In the late 1920s, after the war, America had excess manufacturing capacity. We began to invent needs rather than fulfill them. Kaplan writes:
“In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called “need saturation.” Davis noted that ‘the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year’ and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, ‘It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.’
“President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices…a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”
“Our modern predicament is a case in point. By 2005 per capita household spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was twelve times what it had been in 1929, while per capita spending for durable goods — the big stuff such as cars and appliances — was thirty-two times higher. And according to reports by the Federal Reserve Bank in 2004 and 2005, over 40 percent of American families spend more than they earn. The average household carries $18,654 in debt, not including home-mortgage debt, and the ratio of household debt to income is at record levels, having roughly doubled over the last two decades. We are quite literally working ourselves into a frenzy just so we can consume all that our machines can produce.”
We know our unsustainable rate of consumption impoverishes the planet; it also does the same to our souls. All the “stuff” we lust after does not tend to make us happier.
“We have impoverished our human communities with a form of materialism that leaves us in relative isolation from family, friends, and neighbors. We simply don’t have time for them. Unlike our great-grandparents who passed the time, we spend it. An outside observer might conclude that we are in the grip of some strange curse, like a modern-day King Midas whose touch turns everything into a product built around a microchip.”
Kaplan reminds us that time is also a non-renewable resource. Perhaps, by conserving time, we’d have time enough to realize what makes us truly happy.
Read the full story in Orion magazine by clicking here.
Call it keeping up with the Joneses, an insatiable need to have the next big thing, the latest and greatest, or simply trying to fill a void, too much stuff, is too much. I believe that it’s the people we surround ourselves with, the meaningful conversations we have them, the places we travel to, our life accomplishments and the books we read that are the elements that make us happy, not all the stuff. I don’t know about you, but it’s time for me to purge.
The best is yet to be.