Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oh, things.

I came across an article today in Time Magazine called How to Live With Just 100 Things.  As a self-identified anti-consumerist/pack-rat, I was naturally drawn to the title, which led me to the story of a guy named Dave, who has committed to narrowing down his possessions to just 100 items by November 2008, and will continue to live with only those 100 items for one year.  He counts some collections (like socks, or books) as one collective item, and has given himself permission to bend or break rules as needed down the line, and I don't blame him for that. Making your goals realistic is the most important part of setting goals, especially when your goals involve drastic lifestyle changes that need to last.  Even with these allowances, the 100 Thing Challenge is certainly a challenge, and it's left me looking around my apartment, wondering what number my many belongings add up to. 

A main goal of the challenge, as I understand it, is to change one's relationship with things. It isn't just about de-cluttering, as Dave explains, but about breaking a deep-routed addiction to stuff.  I can relate to that desire.  I might abhor shopping, but I still love things. I collect and save stuff more than most people I know, and I find great joy in the things I keep.  (Free things are the best, found things come in a close second, and sometimes, I'll settle for purchased things--preferably used, but that choice isn't always possible.)  There are many types of pack rats, and I'm the type who sees a usefulness in everything.  Everything is either a tool or a piece of art in my book, and my home functions as the tool shed/museum for these treasures.  

I admit, though, that things can be a great burden too. First of all, you have to find a place for all of them.  The more stuff you have, the more room you need or the more organized you need to be.  I'm short on space and organization, but puttering with my things is one of my favorite past times, like a puzzle that constantly resorts itself and is never quite finished.  Secondly, possessions can be a burden in their tendency to own you as soon as you give them more weight than they are worth. That can be dangerous.  If freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, then stuff is another word for something else to worry about.  

Materialism is fascinating. The relationships between people and their belongings develop from such strong feelings as desire, dependency, and love.  The appeal of consumption and advertising is both a product and a cause of those relationships, and a cycle is formed where things begin to fulfill 'needs' that are much more complex than survival, and the pursuit of those things leaves new emotional gaps, which evolve into new material needs.  As an environmentalist, mass consumption and materialism are some of the most pressing issues challenging sustainability and the environment. And as a pack rat, I am frustrated by how much I am attached to my things, and how seductive new things can be, despite their burden.  

During college, I studied abroad in Samoa to immerse myself in a culture with a wildly different take on materialism than the one I was raised in. For the most part, people don't really "own" things in Samoa.  They merely "use" things.  It sounds like a matter of semantics, but I assure you, this lack of material attachment was one of the biggest cases of culture shock that the group of Americans I was studying with had to tackle when we arrived in Samoa, myself included.   The Samoan word for "give" and "take" is the exact same word.  Wealth is not defined by what you own, but rather what you give away.  These were valuable lessons for an American who previously thought communal living was a thing of the ancient past, and that Western notions of materialism were universal.   

It is a life-long goal of mine to continue to address my love-hate relationship with materialism.  I wish Dave all the best with his 100 Thing Challenge, and I applaud him for taking this difficult challenge head-on. If I ever get around to counting my things, I'll be sure and let you know how this anti-consumerist pack rat stacks up.  



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