Owning Stuff

You can either strive to get what you want or to want what you get. At the extremes, both lead to bad things.

Still, when I encountered Buddhist thought in my late teens, it presented a choice of two paths to satisfying one’s desires: get more or want less. The path of getting more is infinite. The path of wanting less is not. Though by no means easy when carried to the extreme, it seemed like the easier path. Living simply appealed to me.

My definition of simple has expanded in appalling ways over the intervening 40-plus years. Somehow it came to include owning a house, a car, a computer, more pots and pans than I use and a million other things I do not, strictly speaking, need. Still, as a guiding North Star in life, it has worked out well. It has allowed me to earn a modest income yet still live within my means, save some money and find myself at 61 with decent savings and lots of free time to live the life I want.

And since the life I want remains very simple, this all works out. My “best life” does not include a jet or luxury hotels or even a large house.

This has been much on my mind watching how people grow old with their possessions. A neighbor was telling me his mother doesn’t want to keep anything and keeps giving away things to neighbors who don’t actually want them. She was doing it at such a scale, people worried because that’s often what people do before suicide. When asked point blank she said, “Oh no! Not at all! I’m just tired of the clutter.”

That’s one path. That’s the easy path.

The harder path is to invest meaning into the things around you and then face the hard task of parting with those precious repositories of meaning.

We recently helped my in-laws downsize from their home of over 50 years into an apartment with about a quarter the space. Every dish and every pan that my mother-in-law had to give up seemed to cause pain. I went through a closet with her that was full of kitchen stuff she had not used in years. She had three relish trays for setting out a variety of pickles and olives and nuts at a party.

One was a nice one, unopened, apparently never used. This was a common theme. Quite often, the “nice” stuff had never or rarely been used. It always got saved for the special occasion, but the occasion special enough had never come. What then was the point of owning nice stuff?

It made me wonder how many closets across America are full of the “nice” stuff. That, I think is a generational thing. My generation and younger doesn’t generally have nice china and genuine silver flatware that they are saving for when the queen or the president comes to call.

Two of the relish trays, on the other hand, were what I would call junky, 1970s plastic trays. Standing on a ladder, I pulled them out from deep in the back of the top shelf.

“Oh, I like those!” she said.

“When is the last time you used them?” I asked.

“A long time ago,” she said, a bit wistfully.

“More than 30 years ago?”

“Oh yeah.”

Clearly these were not going to fit in the new apartment. Clearly they were not coming. But just as clearly, she wanted them, artifacts of a past life when they hosted parties.

We had a long talk. She explained to me that she just liked her stuff and she hated letting it go. She had chosen it. In many cases she had found just the thing she liked at a flea market or a sale. It was hers. Just what she wanted.

I understood that. I had acquired a substantial academic library, much of it on the cheap at used book sales, many volumes out of print. It would be tens of thousands of dollars, maybe even six figures, to replace. Even more importantly, the books felt like part of my identity, an expression of who I am or, at least, who I was at the time I bought the books.

But at some point I realized it had become a burden, a set of big heavy boxes to move every time I moved which, at the time, was frequent. So I let it go. And in the process, I freed myself. My books were no longer a burden because they were no longer my books.

So part of me understood. Giving up the relish trays feels like admitting that she is no longer a person who might throw a party, just like giving up my books was like admitting that I am no longer the kind of person who might read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (which is true, I am definitely no longer that kind of person).

But part of me was sad. The things she owns have ended up imposing a burden.

We acquire things, small luxuries, in hopes they will bring us joy and comfort, maybe even status. Of course people would come to my home and be impressed by the fact that the Critique of Pure Reason is on my shelves.

But in the end our attachment to them is a burden. I wanted her to feel the relief I felt in letting go of the books, but her nature and my nature are different. There was no relief for her, no unburdening. She just felt sadness and overload from decision fatigue about what to keep and what to throw when you want to keep it all but have to throw most of it.

At some point in the move, she told us of her oldest friend, who is struggling and needs live-in help, but she is afraid to hire anyone. She didn’t collect plastic relish trays. She collected art, fine wine, very expensive things. She is afraid that if she hires someone to come into the house, the person will steal those things.

My first thought is, what does it matter? She collected them over a lifetime and now that she is ill and near the end of life, she can’t drink those wines anyway. What value do these things really have?

Her fear of theft means that she is losing the freedom to get help so she can stay in her own home. These things of such supposed value are constraining her, making her life smaller, reducing her choices.

Her things own her more than she owns them at this point. She no longer determines what happens to the things. She has let the things dictate what happens to her. That strikes me as the extreme case of unhealthy attachment to things. It is beyond my comprehension, but I still have 30 years before I’m their age. Maybe I’ll see it differently then.

Still, sitting here not yet old but no longer young, I’m taking notes on how to be a happy and successful old person. I’m thinking about what things I have not used in a long time that should get donated or trashed. I think about why I have not gotten rid of my ice climbing equipment, last used 25 years ago. In my mind, it had value for a long time. Now, it doesn’t even have that. The technology has passed it by and if I were to start ice climbing again, I would soon want all new stuff.

And yet there it sits in its subtle way taking up space in my home and in my mind.

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