Take a load off

If someone asked you to name every single possession you own off the top of your head, could you do it?  Sure, you’d probably cover off on the big things relatively easily- your television, your car, your laptop, your couch, your refrigerator.  But what about the little things?  What about every pair of socks in your sock drawer, or every bottle in your medicine cabinet?  What about books, DVDs, and all of the old letters and birthday cards from friends and relatives tucked away in a drawer somewhere?  What about each and every kitchen gadget, piece of jewelry, and item of clothing hanging in your closet?  Could you do it? Could you list every single item, confident and assured that you have missed not-a-one?

I sure couldn’t. It’s a near impossible task. Yet, despite this ineptitude, I’ve never felt like I own a terribly excessive amount of stuff. Why shouldn’t I be able to list every single item I own?

There is a common notion that as one progresses through his or her adult life, presumably starting out with nothing and then climbing a career ladder, one’s home will grow accordingly. Perhaps you get your start in a cramped, run-down apartment as you gain your footing in this strange labyrinth called adulthood, but with hard work and determination, as your paychecks become more robust, you’ll find yourself gradually occupying nicer and roomier places.  It’s a somewhat natural, logical progression to assume.

When we advance in our lives this way, we can reason that most everything else will become more plentiful to match. Our fridges will become better stocked, our closets larger and fuller, and our bookshelves less sparse. We’ll amass various odds and ends over time for those “what if” situations, like tool-kits, flashlights, and serving platters.

Over our lifetimes we’ll collect and accumulate more and more, eventually leaving our lives with a bountiful lot of things left behind, and perhaps we’ll never notice because the accumulation occurs so gradually.  It’s possible we could live entire lives without ever being forced to take a good hard look at our collective massive consumption habit; it simply disappears within the confines of dusty cardboard boxes and temperature controlled storage units.

Until recently, I never felt that my lifestyle was anything out of the ordinary.  My post-college apartment looked like that of any other female recent grad in my tax bracket.  Subsisting on an entry-level paycheck, I didn’t have the disposable income to develop a terrible shopping habit, so the accumulation happened too gradually to notice.  I kept my home tidy, clutter free, and visually appealing, always mindful abut which possessions should be on display and which should be strategically hidden away.  Thus, on the surface I appeared and felt normal. And perhaps, in terms of the average American lifestyle, I was normal.

In order to recognize and shed light on a bad habit, it often takes an experience that runs counter to our normal patterns.  For me, it took moving to New York City.

Within a couple of weeks of receiving the good news, my soon-to-be roommates and I found a great Manhattan 3-bedroom within our budget.  By “great,” mind you, I mean a <500 square foot, 5th floor walk-up tucked away in the shabby yet trendy East Village neighborhood.  The place was tiny, yes, but it had recently been renovated and outfitted with shiny new hardwood floors and pristine white shower tiling.  We overlooked the facts that our bedrooms were equivalent in size to closets of wealthy suburbanites and that we would forego any common area space besides the economically-sized bathroom and a small strip of counter space.  Manhattan was, decidedly, worth it.

New bedroom dimensions in hand, I measured my furniture and found that I would have no choice but to sell nearly all of it.  The only pieces that made the cut were my queen-sized bed-frame and mattress.  The rest were to be released into the black hole of Craigslist.  And at first, I thought that this would be enough downsizing to get me into that tiny shoe-box apartment.  I thought I would feel free, releasing all of these big, bulky, heavy furniture items from my possession.

Unfortunately, I was only scratching the surface of the purging that needed to be done.  As I’d come to realize over the following weeks, I had amassed entirely too much stuff.

As I surveyed my possessions in each room of my home, removed items from cluttered drawers and shelves, and excavated hidden artifacts from deep underneath my bed-frame, it occurred to me that I had significantly underestimated how much I actually owned.

As space had never before been a terribly limited resource, I was never forced to pick and choose.  I never had to confront my consumerism, my hidden habit of hoarding.  But as I surveyed every item, big and small, important and untouched in years, I became overwhelmed.  I felt burdened, as if I were almost physically bearing the weight of each of these possessions.  The reality and gravity of my decision begun to sink in, and a paralyzing kind of stress took hold.  I had signed a 12-month lease for an 80 square foot bedroom and funneled thousands of dollars into a broker’s bank account.  My new home would require nothing short of a major lifestyle change, and there was no turning back.  I had no choice but to make it work.

The kind of persistent, paralyzing stress that I experienced while preparing for the move can break down a person with time.  As my home became a chaotic mess of cardboard boxes and junk strewn about, my natural curiosity and creativity began to leak out.  I became physically drained and exhausted, so consumed by trying to make sense of everything I owned, that my interests and passions began to dry up, evaporate.  I was surrounded by stuff, all the stuff that I had at one time decided was important, yet I had lost sight of the aspects of myself that truly made me happy. 

The only thing I could think to do was get rid of it; purge all the stuff that was causing me anxiety.  I Googled the term “minimalism.”

The concept felt extremist, but I needed an extreme solution.  I felt like I was spinning out and I desperately needed to regain control over my life.  I had heard about minimalism only a handful of times before, associating the term with peculiar hippies who live in micro-houses in the Mid-West, but it soon became clear that minimalism was everything I wanted, needed, and more.  I simply could no longer bear the weight of my possessions, many of them things that I hadn’t even looked in years, and minimalism offered the ultimate solution.  Carry less baggage, it whispered.  It was perhaps the most beautiful sentiment I had ever heard.

Taking the plunge, I found that I was more stubborn and emotionally attached to my possessions than I realized.  The process was a strange push and pull- I felt compelled to purge, yet I was also riddled with guilt as I contemplated donating items that I or others had once deemed worthy of hard earned dollars.  It was an experience both freeing and crippling.  I feared I would regret my decisions, or I’d get to New York, unpack my boxes, and realize that I had nothing left.  I pushed past my fears, however, and kept going, making daily trips to Goodwill until everything I owned had either been packed up or discarded.

It has been one month since I settled into my tiny Manhattan apartment.  To my surprise, I haven’t thought about the possessions I purged even once.  As it turns out, those items which I once thought I harbored an attachment to weren’t all that special or important after all.

Today, I fit comfortably in my little shoe-box room and have no regrets, but that doesn’t mean the journey stops there.  I’m still not quite where  I need and want to be.

With each loss, each item let go, there is more to gain.  By beginning a dance with minimalism, I have gained new perspective, learned how to separate necessities from luxuries, and become better equipped to derive happiness not from the things I own but the things I do.  An uncluttered life is more manageable, meaning I enjoy greater mental capacity to focus my attention on doing what’s important to me: writing, painting, communicating, sharing experiences.  Having less is also creatively rejuvenating, opening up the channels of creativity and unlocking a greater sense of clarity and ability to focus.  With less, I am more.

The fact is, we were not meant to live this way, fervent consumers with lives centered on materialism and acquisition.  We have become accustomed to an unnatural way of life, the product of settlement, industrialization, and the explosion of consumerism, which has tricked us into believing we require a tremendously larger quantity of possessions to function than we actually do.  Truly, only a small fraction of what we own is healthy and necessary.

Material possessions won’t bring us happiness.  By shedding the weight of those things, however, we create the opportunity to pursue what truly will.  With less, we can be more, and isn’t that what we’re all seeking?


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