Stuff: the Anti-Freedom

“Never throw anything away,” my father once advised me; without even a glimmer of humor at the ridiculousness of his statement. You’d think he was a child of the Great Depression, given every horizontal surface in his house was the foundation for innumerable stacks of papers, books and what-have-you, and his three-car garage had more stuff packed in and around the four cars he some how managed to cram in there (only one of which was still road-worthy). Really, though, he was just imitating his parents, who actually had survived the Great Depression, and had saved every scrap of wood, every piece of paper, and every cent they’d ever come across in the hope of living to see an end of that horror. They had, eventually raising four children, all believing in the “Great American Dream” that “more” = “better.” They never appeared to give it a second thought; it was simply ingrained in their collective sub-conscious. It might be interesting to ask them if collecting stuff was everything they ever aspired to in life; it simply seems to have happened while they were busy raising children and “making a living.” As long as I can remember, I’ve always dreamed of seeing oceans, mountains and far away places, all from the seat of a bicycle. Meanwhile I got distracted, buying a car, then cars, a house, and all the accouterments that go along with all that, always wondering why buying “more” wasn’t working; why every purchase seemed only to be another ticket to the valley of unhappiness, and the mountain of stuff between me and my dreams of seeing real mountains in person continued to grow.

Eventually I got back into bicycling, a favorite childhood pastime, and shortly thereafter tackled bicycle commuting in an effort to find new places to ride in the little scraps of time left-over after “making a living.” As anyone who’s ever tried carrying stuff on a bicycle has learned, taking it with you quickly becomes a challenge: not only do you have to find a way to strap it on, but ounces add up to pounds, and pounds take energy to move. Inertia is a harsh mistress: every extra pound of stuff takes extra effort to move; eventually one learns the value of traveling light.

Even now, years after making that first “impossible” bicycle commute, I struggle with too much stuff. Starting from just the free 12-speed road bicycle a co-worker gave me, I soon had acquired eight other bicycles, each with a unique purpose in my mind. Even moving from a typical three-bedroom, three-car-garage suburban house to a much smaller one-bedroom, no-garage, house in the city didn’t seem to faze my addiction to stuff. It wasn’t until I was tripping over bicycles one day, not able to ride the one I wanted because it was at the back of the pile, that the notion of “too much stuff” extending also to bicycles crossed my mind. The very same contraption that freed me from the confines of rush-hour-traffic and let me explore places beyond walking distance and still make it home in time for supper could itself be part of the problem when there were too many of them. I could only ride one at a time, after all. This was when getting rid of things suddenly changed from an excruciating exercise in “what if I need it later?” to the exhilarating feeling of a burdensome weight being lifted from my shoulders. My “mountain of stuff” was shrinking, one item donated, one item sold at a time. Little by little my dreams were coming back into view.

After a year in the one bedroom house in the city I realized that I wouldn’t replace most of what I had and dropped my renters insurance. As I continued getting rid of things I used rarely, or could duplicate the functionality of with something more general purpose, I realized I was paying $900 a month to rent what amounted to a “warehouse” for stuff I just didn’t need and started wondering what it would cost to keep just the things I actually did need. Whoa. Back up and think that one through again: just having stuff actually meant dollars out of my pocket each month, dollars that could be getting me closer to realizing my dreams. Suddenly my relationship to every “thing” I had changed: was it helping me realize my dreams or was it holding me back from them?

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2 Responses to Stuff: the Anti-Freedom

  1. Shaun Meehan says:

    Excellent and interesting post! It makes me embarrassed of all of the essentially useless stuff around our house.

    • Sean says:

      Thanks Shaun. Learning to look at things this way has been an interesting “journey” in-and-of itself: the farther I go the farther I realize I still have to go. I’ve felt similar embarrassment, and am trying to use it myself as motivation to keep going. On the bright side, I’m starting to see some progress, and each step taken seems to reveal the next step to take. It all comes down to deciding what one wants to make a priority in one’s life, and going for it.

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