May 7, 2009

Your Things Own You




Do you remember the wall posters that were around a while back saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins"? Some one forgot to tell Gandhi. The above photo shows his total worldly possessions at the time of his death. No toys. In March of 2009 these same simple items were bought by an Indian airline and liquor baron, Vijay Mallya, for 1.8 million U.S. dollars. Vijay Mallya would be on the "Toys" poster if it were printed today.

I don't see those posters around so much anymore. We have gone so overboard since then that we are finally starting to feel guilty about it. We just keep quiet now, and wonder why we still feel so unfulfilled. It would be much healthier to "pull a Gandhi" and see who can pass on with the fewest toys. If you can't fit it all in a small box you are disqualified.

The times that we feel the most free are the times we have the least stuff, generally. Childhood. The student life. Backpacking and camping. Traveling light overseas. Freed of encumbrances and responsibilities we are light and joyous. Unburdened and unfettered by the clutter and curses of consumer culture we become ourselves again. We have the space to remember who we are and what it is that is really important to us. What we want, not what others tell us we should want.

Confucius, Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha and others have taught the principles of a simple life with few possessions. Beyond what we need to survive, they have shown us, everything else is a distraction that prevents us from doing the important work. “And what's the work?" asks Allan Ginsberg, "To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.”

Our consumer culture is most certainly a drunken dumbshow. We are caught in its grip, mesmerized by shiny things and damn the consequences, the externalites. It is adding to the pain of living, and we are sacrificing our lives and the planet to purchase this pain. We have known for decades, perhaps centuries, that our progress currently is not sustainable, but we just can't seem to stop.

If humanity can not stop its over consumption, something will do it for us. Climate change, Peak Oil, aging boomers, flu epidemics, overpopulation, ecosystem collapse, drought, crop failure, and a number of other threats ensure that Mother Earth will get the final move in the return to a more balanced system. One that may or may not include us. Or developed countries can willingly adopt a way of life that only recent generations are not familiar with. That is, one with very few possessions.

Since 2000 Linda and I have been making an effort to not buy anything that we do not need. We wanted to adopt measures to reduce our consumption willingly, before being forced to later for what ever reasons. We have found that it is possible to be "rich" with less, and as we go along our quality of life is increasing despite our spending decreasing.

We know how difficult it is to cut back while surrounded by a culture of cut in line to get more. When I think about how I might reduce my consumption further I am reminded of the 1979 movie "The Jerk". Steve Martin in the lead role contemplates what he needs in the following scene:

"Well I'm gonna to go then. And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this. [picks up an ashtray]

And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray.

And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need.

And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need.

I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure."


At first it is hard to let go of our things, but as time goes on we do not miss them. As we settle into a new life of experiences rather than work and things we are released from consumer bondage. Life becomes lighter, more real. The more you live without the extra baggage, the easier it gets. Soon a rich simple life flows quite naturally, and cognitive dissonance, that deadly stress producer, is reduced.

Our behaviour becomes more aligned with what we believe to be true. And what we know is that beyond a certain amount of possessions we fall prey to the law of diminishing returns. More stuff does not make our lives better. In fact, once past the point of "enough", the more stuff we get, the poorer the quality of life becomes. Ultimately, all your stuff has to be maintained, not to mention guarded, stored and paid for. The stuff begins to take over. It possesses you.

It is easy to accumulate stuff these days with lines of credit and such. It is much more challenging to see how little one can live on, and do the planet a much needed favour at the same time.When Gandhi passed away his possessions could fit into a small cardboard box. If I can get my possessions down to filling the box of my truck I will be happy for now. But I am aiming for the freedom of that small cardboard box.

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