I’m one week away from my official retirement day as Stuff Manager, and my home is over 40 bags lighter, but I’m not done. As I sit down to write this seventh post in what I planned to be a short series about a one-time project, I realize that this is no longer either of those things. This process has shifted my beliefs and actions in unexpected ways, and if I’m still working through those things in my head, chances are, I’ll keep writing about them here. After all, this blog is cheaper than therapy.
Everything I’ve written so far has dealt with the process of letting go of possessions and distractions in order to cultivate a life that is focused on our own unique purposes and goals. While I’ve talked about our excuses for hanging onto clutter, I’ve carefully skirted the issue of how we got all the stuff in the first place. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even question it when I started. I accepted the amount of belongings in my home as easily as I accepted that the sky is blue. I was tired of cleaning and organizing the stuff, but not all that curious about where it came from. But you can’t get rid of more than 40 bags of your belongings without asking yourself some hard questions. It’s an uncomfortable conversation, but I think it’s time we talked about where all this stuff comes from.
The heart of this issue is consumption. It’s consumerism. It’s the fact that we live in a culture deeply influenced by a 100 billion dollar advertising industry. We live in a country where we are more often referred to as consumers than citizens. We are constantly subjected to news stories that rejoice in the growth and provoke fear at the fall of consumer spending. We will declare the entire month of December an economic disaster if we do not buy enough stuff. This country used to ask its citizens to make sacrifices, ration food, grow gardens. Now, we’re called on to go shopping as an act of patriotism.
We buy too much stuff. There’s really no way to sugar coat this statement. We can rationalize it by looking at people who buy more stuff then we do, but the truth is, even those of us living paycheck to paycheck buy too much stuff. American consumer debt is at an all time high, credit card debt is rising and a Google search on this topic is just depressing. But I don’t think I need to share all of the research here. I think if we are honest, we know this deep down. We know it every time we go to Target for cat litter and come home with a new welcome mat, some beach towels, a water gun and a cute mug. Not that I’ve ever done that.
|Image Credit: Becoming Minimalist|
There are all kinds of reasons that we buy more than we need. We shop for the temporary happiness of a new thing, we believe our material possessions define us as humans, we are more influenced by advertising than we are willing to admit, the list goes on and on. But I want to talk about another reason, one that doesn’t get a lot air time.
One of the prevailing narratives is that our consumption habit is all about keeping up with the Joneses. As in, you see your neighbor (the proverbial Mr. Jones) outside with his new riding lawnmower and suddenly you have to have a riding lawnmower too. The thing is, I’m just not so sure about this anymore. I’m not so sure we even step outside our own little bubbles enough to be aware of the brand of our neighbor’s lawnmower, let alone covet it. Some of us might not even know our neighbor Mr. Jones’s actual name.
What if the problem is not that we are trying to keep up with the Joneses, but that we don’t know the Joneses?
I think a large part of our consumption habit comes from living from a place of scarcity. We don’t feel like we can count on anyone but ourselves anymore, so we plan for all possible futures and accumulate all the things we might need for those futures.
What if we started to believe we were not alone?
What if the antidote to consumerism is not self-deprivation, but community?
There is probably an example of this already happening somewhere in your life. Maybe you and your friends pass along your kids’ outgrown clothing instead of selling it. Maybe you and a neighbor share a snowblower. But what if we lived in the kinds of communities where sharing became the norm rather than the exception?
I can already hear the objections.
But you don’t know my neighbor! I can’t share with her, she’s bat-shit crazy!
What if someone breaks the shared stuff? Who’s going to pay for that?
What are you even talking about, living in a commune? I’m not a communist!
Okay, okay, points taken. But your neighbor does not have to mean your literal neighbor, and a community does not have to be your street (though that certainly helps in the case of the snowblower). And yes, someone might break the stuff. That might happen. We’ll all have to stop being so precious about our stuff for this to work. People before stuff. That’s our mantra here. And no, I’m not talking about a commune. (Well, okay, I might be interested in a commune.) But I’m not talking about everyone living in communes. You don’t have to live in a commune to engage in communal living.
What I am talking about is investing in community and putting the people in your life before the things in your life.
If any part of what I’ve just said rings true for you, I want to suggest a challenge. Consider the people in your life, your family, your close friends, your neighbors. Choose just one area of stuff and approach just one person in your life about sharing the load in that area. The easiest one I can think of is children’s clothing. If you currently purchase all of your children’s clothing brand new, I want you to calculate what you spend on average each year. If you found just one family to share this burden with, you could easily halve that number. Don’t have children? There are so many other options. Share a DVD collection with a friend (there’s little chance you are always going to want to watch the same movie on the same night), host a clothing exchange with your adult friends where you “shop” one another’s unused clothing, share a grill with your neighbor or a magazine subscription with a friend, split the cost of camping equiptment with your brother.
I want to hear your stories. Do you think lack of community contributes to over-consumption? Do you currently share within your community? And if you don’t, what stops you?
In the meantime, I’ll be planning that commune.
This post is part of a series on quitting your job as a Stuff Manager. Drop back in to read more about my journey over the next forty days, or subscribe by email if you don’t want to miss a post! I look forward to hearing about your own resignation.
3. But I’ll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses) – On excuses for our clutter
4. Donating Outside the Box – On finding a great place for your donations
5. 7 Ideas for Managing Digital Clutter – On minimizing distractions and clutter on your devices
6. Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding? – On the difference between organizing and purging
7. Getting to Know Mr. Jones: An Antidote to Consumerism – On exploring where we got all of this stuff in the first place and a communal antidote to over-consumption
8. Taking Back Your Square Footage – On creating space in your home that reflects your intentions and values