A cousin well into her empty-nest years acknowledged that she finds herself increasingly focused on “reducing inventory.” Despite being at a different life stage, I knew just what she meant.
For years, I’ve been struggling to keep our household from sliding into a rathole of unconscious accumulation – where drawers, closets, shelves and every available counter and desk surface overflow with stuff. It’s an ongoing challenge not to end up like Tucker Mouse in George Selden’s “The Cricket in Times Square,” whose favorite pastime is scrounging, which leads to a drainpipe home crammed with random finds.
In our acquisitive culture, what even constitutes a modest inventory of material goods can be hard to define. Peter Menzel’s sobering photographic collection “Material World” makes this clear, depicting families around the world with their accumulated belongings.
A “statistically average” American family appears unimaginably rich alongside a typical family in Mali or Ethiopia with their sparse utilitarian possessions. Whereas most of their belongings consist of basic bowls and baskets for food storage and preparation, the average American family – in a study by UCLA anthropologists – had 39 pairs of shoes, 90 DVDs, 212 CDs, 139 toys and 438 books and magazines. More than three-fourths of those surveyed had garages so filled with overflow household items that they could not accommodate a vehicle.
Many global residents see the resource-guzzling excesses of Americans as gluttonous and immoral. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper and roughly one-quarter of its oil, coal and natural gas.
I heard many statistics like these before the hyper-materialism of our lives forcefully hit home. My moment of awakening came after the death of a beloved dog, when I returned home and acutely felt the absence of her customary greeting. Looking about, I was struck by how little she’d left behind: one bed, two bowls and one leash. She had lived for 16 exuberant years – overflowing with joy and curiosity, and had accumulated virtually nothing.
Glancing about at my own mass of stuff, which filled several rooms, I was struck by what a fool’s game reflexive acquisition is. Clearly we need more than dogs do, but I knew then that I could get by with far fewer things – without experiencing any less fulfillment.
In my quest to reduce inventory since then, I’ve had some good role models. My Aunt Lydia lived a long and satisfying life with a near-complete disregard for stuff. Long before the term was coined, she was a minimalist. When told of the latest gadget or gizmo, she’d ask, with genuine incredulity, “What would you need that for?!”
A lifelong artist, she drew from the mysterious depths of her imagination to generate hundreds of compelling images. To her, life was for creating, not consuming.
She helped teach me that you can’t get too sentimental about material stuff. When her parents’ house, where she had grown up, was sold, she declined to fill her own small home with their residual life accumulations.
The heirloom trap can ensnare many of us who feel obliged to maintain a lineage of stuff from generation to generation. There can be great comfort, beauty and utility in these legacy items. But where there is not, it makes sense to relinquish them without guilt.
Taking a lesson from dogs, who always dwell in the moment, might help us shed items from the past and resist the impulse to horde things we “might need someday.” It can be freeing to liberate ourselves from the oppressive weight of excess stuff, what author James Wallman terms “stuffocation.”
Reducing inventory can become an ongoing practice, part mundane and part spiritual. The mundane task is to resist round-the-clock shopping and “upgrade” opportunities that can unwittingly fill our homes and lives with far more than we need – leaving us spent in every sense of the word. The spiritual challenge involves seeing past the long-standing lie (perpetuated by ubiquitous advertising) that we can buy our way to happiness.
Now when I consider what items will take up residence in our home, I think long and hard about whether each will offer more than it takes – in money, space, cleaning, maintenance and ultimately disposal. As I strive to reduce inventory, I hear my late aunt’s voice echoing in my head: “What would you need that for?”
Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (naturalchoices.com).