I love to be surrounded by beautiful things, and I find myself being seduced by material objects that I equate with increased happiness. We are flooded by messages of the cult of consumerism. Advertising comes at us from every direction and in every possible media. I’m now facing an internal dilemma, an act of consumerism blasphemy. As I have embarked on a year-long quest to “be a better me”, I’m struggling with my connection to my possessions and my desire to live a “simple life”. In her book Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin refers to this nostalgia for a simple and less-cumbersome life as Waldenlust (coined in honor of Walden’s own search for simplicity).
I intuitively know that having a connection to possessions creates a two-fold problem. First, it makes me equate my happiness and contentedness with external objects rather than internal peace. Also, objects can always be taken away from me, and that in turn leads to fear and discomfort.
This got me thinking about my connection to the material things around our home. Like most people today, I’m always pressed for time, and feel like I’m merely treading water on most days. There is no denying that having possessions takes a lot of time and energy. I’ve got to earn money to pay for them, then I have to house them, and quite often clean or maintain them. That’s precious time that I could be spending on much more meaningful pursuits. Having the mind of an addict, I have to admit that most of the time, these possessions don’t satiate my happiness void for very long because they usually leave me wanting more and feeling anxious.
Gretchen Rubin articulates this beautifully when she says: “It was a matter of engagement. When I felt engaged with my possessions, I felt enlivened by them, and when I felt disengaged from them, I felt burdened.” The trick for me over the next year will involve being honest with myself about which possessions I own actually engage me. The easiest way to get at the heart of this is to turn to that old AA slogan that I use as a guidepost in other areas of my life: Keep it Simple. I’m starting to ask myself what importance a particular object has in my life, and how I would feel were I to lose it. This seems to be clearing out all that “white noise” in my brain about what I “need” and what I “want”. Take for example the thousands of books we’ve been carting around from house to house for the past 27 years. Will I really ever read Paradise Lost again? How about the 10 books I have on the now disgraced Lance Armstrong? I don’t want to divest myself of all the books around me, but some serious culling is in order.
This got me thinking about what possessions I really hold an emotional investment with. It’s not our album of wedding photos, but simply one picture I have of my wife and I shortly after we started dating; we look so young and in love. It’s a beautiful hand knit green and purple sweeter that my wife made for our son when he was just a toddler. It’s an old, worn signet ring that my father wore when he was alive that now sits in my wife’s jewelry box. I can still see that ring on his finger as the cigarette smoke plumed up from his muscular hand. It’s a letter I wrote to my wife one Christmas that was a series of vignettes of important moments of our life together. She later had it framed, and now it’s hangs in our bedroom. I have a wall with over 100 medals from all of the marathons and ultra marathons that I’ve run, but the only medal that holds emotional significance to me is the small gold Comrades medal I got when I did the 90k race in South Africa last year. I was terrified to do that race, and I almost let my fear stop me from trying. My wife was so supportive and she convinced me to live a “bigger life” and to go for it. I can still remember entering the cricket stadium in Durban, South Africa after 9 hours of running and seeing my wife’s face when I ran past her. She looked so proud of me, and she reminded me that joy in my life is meaningless without someone to share it with. Our friend Joanna took a picture of my wife hugging me at the finish line, and you can see the tears welling up in our eyes. And yes, that picture is one more possession that holds priceless memories for me.
[I welcome your comments and suggestions below.]