I have a lot of stuff. I have less stuff than many of my fellow Americans, so at times, I feel self-satisfied. But then I realize I have a lot more than I need, so my sense of self-satisfaction dissipates and is replaced by shame and a desire to do better — to pare down to the very basics. The basics of the basics. The ur-basics. I’m sure there is a new book on decluttering that will help me, one that everyone is reading. Or one that addresses simplifying. Or maybe a book that takes on minimalism, because minimalism is a life-changer, or so I hear.Maybe it’s not a matter of denying the appeal of things, but understanding the role of the material in relation to the immaterial. Understanding when things matter and when they don’t.
I watch the documentary TINY: A Story About Living Small and think I could do that! I could live in a tiny house! For starters, I already do by American standards. It’s just a matter of living in a tiny house by international standards, of trimming my square footage and shedding a couple of tons of this and that.
One problem with this idea, however, is that I have a family. My kids, they keep getting bigger. They’re like a character in a children’s book that keeps growing until he’s wearing the house on his back like a saddle. So I’m putting the tiny house idea on hold until I figure out how to accommodate the kids. In the meantime, however, I could always get rid of some of this stuff.
I’m not alone in my dilemma. America’s retail sales in 2013 topped 4.5 trillion dollars. Lots of Americans are buying lots of things, and retail sales figures don’t even factor in all of the stuff already in circulation, cycling somewhere out there between the factory and the landfill. Of course, the fact that Americans are acquisitive doesn’t mean we are suffering from a collective pathology. Unless we are.
Up to 15 million Americans are compulsive hoarders, or so the sober narrator on Hoarding: Buried Alive tells us, intoning over ominous music as the viewers are lead into one house of horrors after another, each one different, each one the same: stuffed to the rafters with junk, much of it incomprehensibly filthy. A host of interventionists parade across the screen, starting with a psychologist and ending with a professional organizer directing a crew in hazmat suits. The show features decluttering taken to olympic heights: trucks bearing dumpsters arrive and trucks bearing multitudes of stuff depart. Meanwhile, the hoarder is reduced to a puddle of tears or rage or both while watching the detritus of years of accumulation disappear. Their children or some stranger, usually of the mental health variety, reassures them that love — not stuff — is enough.
Here’s the problem: while I might feel superior to the hoarder, I don’t believe any more than the hoarder does that love is actually enough. In addition to love, I need things. What gets confusing is knowing the difference between the things we need and the things we don’t need. The basics are shelter, food, and clothing. But what happens after I have the things I absolutely need? What should I be acquiring? As a culture, we seem to be incapable of answering those questions. Actually, we don’t even try to answer them. We’re too busy shopping. Maybe because, in economic terms, supply relentlessly exceeds demand. From Dollar Tree to Neiman Marcus, Freecycle to Craigslist to the mighty Amazon, we are swimming in stuff, with the Container Store at the ready with attractive bins and baskets to put it all in.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
It’s hard to figure out how to live with such excess in America, all this getting and spending. For some of us, figuring out how to live with it means not living with it — ditching convention and getting rid of nearly everything. Like Mike Boyink and his family of Michigan, for instance. Several years ago, the Boyinks bailed out on their suburban life, where work had existed to support an infrastructure of their house and all its trappings — only to realize that their investment of time and money was predicated on a very shaky real estate market. After renting out their house and traveling for a year and working from the road, they came back to Michigan and upped the ante, selling the house and becoming full-time minimalists, traveling in the all-American, pre-hipster era version of the tiny house: the RV.
I asked Mike if he missed having a lot of stuff. “Not a single bit.” he answered. “I don’t miss feeling like there is always some thing that needs my attention,” Mike said. “Having fewer things means that I can focus more on creative efforts… By embracing minimalism we were able to become something new.” Still, Mike pointed out that the family did not become minimalists philosophically, but by necessity. When four people live in a camper, there’s just not a lot of room for extra stuff. “Minimalism was a means rather than a goal,” he said.
And this is an important distinction. It applies to all of us, from the average American with too much junk in his garage to the hoarder in danger of being smothered by towering piles of old newspapers. Minimalism is inherently not the goal. Denying the appeal of the material world will not in and of itself bring a sense of balance. A life of asceticism, of possessing nothing or nearly so is not only unrealistic for most of us in the first world, but potentially as morally hazardous as living a life dedicated to stuff. It offers a path that denies the pleasures and beauty of this world, of creation itself.
So maybe it’s not a matter of denying the appeal of things, but understanding the role of the material in relation to the immaterial. Understanding when things matter and when they don’t. This is at the center of the tension of being human — trying to find the balance between body and soul, the physical and the spiritual. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus himself offers an example in this regard, at least in quality if not degree, as he managed to address matters of the soul while also being a carpenter — a material pursuit if there ever was one. Living in the beauty of the material world, the world of things, with an eye on the world to come just might be what it means to be in the world but not of it.
In this sense — and much to my relief — living in a tiny house isn’t even an option. Not for me, not for any of us. Because when we are actually in the world, when we fully inhabit it, we have the run of the whole place — the material goodness of the entire world belongs to us. And this remains true, whether or not we own a single thing.