When I decided to sell my home last winter, my stuff stopped being the pleasant backdrop to daily life and started demanding my attention. Beloved possessions became objects to sort, discard, bequeath, measure, and pack. Adding up self-storage fees, UHaul truck rental, and 8 miles per gallon of gas for 2300 miles, it cost quite a lot to move the five pieces of furniture and 67 boxes that survived this process of discernment from a dark self-storage unit in Chicago to a dark farm shed in Washington State.
From my extreme downsizing, I’ve learned exactly how much I have, and what it costs me. It’s left me with a sense that most of us North Americans have too much, and spend too much energy acquiring, caring for, and storing those things.
The doilies and antimacassars that cluttered our grandmothers’ homes have given way to gadgets, home electronics, and more contemporary gewgaws we think we can’t live without. Our garages are so stuffed with furniture, toys, sports equipment, and yard tools that cars can’t live in them anymore. We hold yard sales, but they don’t make a dent in our belongings because we fill our spaces with new bargains.
We do need tools for living, like the butter churn in the South Dakota sod house I visited on my road trip, or the laptop I’m typing on. And we cherish heirlooms that embody our family stories. But are there other, more creative and beneficial ways we could spend our energy than buying, selling, and tending stuff?
As a culture, we could produce less. According to the American Society of Interior Designers, 90 percent of everything manufactured in the U.S. ends up in a landfill in a year. No wonder Jared Diamond says much of American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to the quality of life.
As citizens and Christians (not consumers!), we could purchase more selectively, and free up space in our homes for hospitality to others or rest for ourselves.
We could have less individually, and share more things in common—a skill learned by young participants in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps and similar service projects.
And we could invest more energy in partnering with people in places that don’t have enough, so that together we can create a world in which we don’t suffer from too much and others don’t suffer from too little.
I’m looking forward to spending my energy on something besides my stuff. With everything in the shed, it’s just me and my suitcase. What will I learn next?