the burden of stuff

Since January, in preparation for the move, we’ve been going through our stuff and donating or tossing the items we no longer want or need. “You know what would be fun?” I thought. “It would be fun to keep track of what we’re getting rid of!”

You may have noticed my concept of “fun” does not exactly fall within the bell curve.

I counted to 640 before I gave up. Small to large stuff. I’m talking tubes of lip gloss to cups to pants to electronics. Each individual item. 

I gave up counting towards the end — it was too much to keep track of. The final number is likely somewhere around 800. If you’d have asked me before I started, I’d have guessed our entire house contained around 800 things.

If I were to assume we gave up one fifth of what we owned, which doesn’t sound like an unreasonable estimate, then that would mean we started with 4,000 things.

How is this mathematically possible? How do two people require 4,000 possessions? How do two people require more than 800 possessions? What is even happening?

I don’t wish to turn this into some kind of moralizing gut-check about mass consumption, but… here is a moralizing gut-check about mass consumption. Just like you’ve probably seen on the pages of other privileged bloggers. It’s all the rage, you know, especially since Caring About Our World and all the various buzzwords associated with that (green! eco! organic! fair trade!) has become a trend; a sort of status symbol of its own.

It’s not like I didn’t care about consumption before, but there was something about watching the stuff I was eighty-sixing stack up over the last few months. I was struck by the enormity of my actions, I guess. I was forced to acknowledge where all that stuff had come from, and where it was going next.

The thing I can’t seem get my mind around is that it all feels so useless, and I feel so helpless. Sure, I can donate what I no longer need to a thrift store, but there’s a chance that instead of those goods helping people in my community they’ll help perpetuate poverty1 in third-world countries instead. Sure, I can vow not to give my money to companies that manufacture clothes in South Asia under deplorable conditions, only to be lured back by the unbelievably budget-friendly deal of a $4 tank top or a $11 sweater.

I can try to only buy locally, and sustainably, but there’s a good chance I might not find what I need inside of those parameters. I can try to make my own stuff, or repair the stuff I have, but I only have so much knowledge and so much time in which to learn new things. I can keep tabs on every company that’s ever done, said, or donated against my ethics, only to find there are no more companies left to buy anything from.

Every time I consciously make an ethical decision, there is some unethical result. With almost everything you choose, some individual or group is disenfranchised or exploited, some resource is depleted, some aspect of the environment is impacted. 

Every good deed is counteracted by bad, bad, bad.

At some point, it gets to be too much of a burden. I start to get resentful. “I didn’t create this convenience-based world, why do I have to carry around all the guilt for it?”

I don’t. Well, I can’t — I have to be a moderately happy, functional human being who doesn’t cry every time I have to toss something in the trash [YEAH, THAT HAPPENED].

But I can’t do nothing, either. There’s nothing any of us can do save for doing what we can — within our budgets, within our bandwidths, within our abilities. I can prioritize what I most feel passionate about and try to let go of the rest. No wallowing in what I cannot do, or what I’m not quite ready to do.

There’s a certain point where saving the world negatively impacts your sanity. The trick is figuring out how to pay due diligence to both “self” and “other” without aggrandizing either of them.

I’m not sure I’ve got that down, yet.

Tell me, what’s your take on stuff? How do you manage your own?

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1 Thanks to Jacqueline of The Hourglass Files for this link.

11 Responses to “the burden of stuff”

  1. I’m always like, “Oh! We need to live in the smallest house possible with absolutely no storage so that we don’t accumulate The Stuff and then we won’t buy excessive amounts of The Stuff and then we won’t find body wash two years after we buy it and go, “oh! shit!” and we can live simply and just with what we need – no extra tubes of half used anything lying around, ever!”

    But it hasn’t happened. Good intentions, whatnot.

    • RIGHT? It has come to my attention that I probably don’t need more than one, maybe two (what if I misplace one?) tubes of lip gloss at a given time, but has that stopped me from accumulating over a dozen in various half-used states? No. I can only hope, though.

  2. I tried to be a warrior on this stuff for a while, but it got exhausting to first decide which choice was the lesser evil (non-sweatshop socks versus organic cotton socks versus fair trade socks), and then to justify the actual price when I came blubbering back to my budget. So I really pulled back on what I worried about, to the point of ridiculous inconsistency. Organic this time, but next time I decide it costs too much. And so on.
    We’re moving to a larger apartment (with closets!), and our friends and co-workers keep joking that now we can Get More Stuff! We’ve both agreed that we don’t want more, we have enough. But I think we can do better with even less. There won’t be a cull while we move. We don’t have time for that. But I know while I’m unpacking, I’ll be filtering what I need, and why.
    Related, there’s so much tyranny to do the right thing with our money, that it becomes paralyzing. I just default to whatever I’ve been doing all along. Case in point, I’d like to switch my cheap coffee for the most ethical coffee I can find (organic! fair trade! shade-grown! bird-friendly!). But that coffee is expensive, and shipping costs another 2/3s of what the beans cost. I’ve been considering this for months, and still haven’t pulled the trigger. How can I justify that price, when I know we’re trying to save money? How can I just casually indulge my habit while destroying the world? (I wonder, while sipping my Eight O’Clock Joe).

    • Erin, I am WITH YOU. It is rough. I waffle all the time on stuff, too. At one point it’s super important to me to buy this type of thing, and the next time I go to buy it, I’m just like pshhhh [tosses whatever cheap mass-produced option in the cart].

      What you said about there being “so much tyranny to do the right thing with our money.” I’m going to be mulling that over for a while.

  3. One of the smartest things I’ve heard about buying “green” is that if we could shop our way out of the environmental mess we’re in, we would already have solved it. That really clicked with me.

    I think at the end of the day, the key is just consuming less. If I can afford to buy the organic, fair trade version, great. But regardless, I try to buy with some awareness of the life cycle of that thing, and how I’m just a temporary piece of it. But I have a long ways to go before I find a happy place with consumption. (We have like 5 or 6 different types of glassware! Because different types of liquids need different shaped receptacles!)

  4. I dealt with stuff by moving into a van.

    Kidding.

    But seriously, when we were packing up our stuff it was crazy to see EVERYTHING we own in two piles: one that we’re going to haul around with us for the next year and the other of stuff that we’re willing to pay storage on if we have to (this pile, incidentally, can also be moved in the jeep and the van in one go). It forced us to consider what’s important to us (for me: photo albums and books, for Forrest: tools, for us both: outdoor gear).

    Like Layla was mentioning before, we go for the live in a small house and hope that helps us not accumulate too much shit. It sorta kinda works…but that sorta kinda seems better than the McMansion alternative so we’ll stick with it.

    • Those dream house plans include a shop 2x the size of the house and bookshelves everywhere…so we’re pretty bad at being anti-stuff too…

  5. I remember on the old blog (I think) you were contemplating that girl who managed to fit her whole life into her truck and wondering if you could do the same.

    I’m definitely at the point where I only buy stuff I love or absolutely need, certainly in terms of clothing or makeup. Music and books might be the exception, as I try before I buy where music is concerned but do still purchase albums so the money goes to the artist, and I do buy books (I know a lot of people who refuse to stop buying books). I’m trying to be more of a minimalist but I also know there is ‘stuff’ that is meaningful. I won’t be throwing out anything from my trip to Melbourne, for example, in the same way that Louise can’t throw out the pair of shoes she ran her first marathon in.

    I do need to get better at throwing stuff out, though, a hard habit to break as I still live with my family and they never chuck anything – ridiculous, given how little space there is here. Sometimes things are just broken, sometimes rubbish is all that is left.

  6. Just got married, so I definitely am navigating the too much stuff, want to be better terrain. When we first registered, we had a hard time coming up with the ‘traditional’ stuff that people seem to like to buy you–bedding, towels, plates and flatware–since we already had that stuff, and it seemed wasteful and also somehow disrespectful (of the people giving us gifts, I guess?) to ask for upgrades. And then when things started arriving, it very quickly became “how do we deal with all this shit?”

    So yeah, I’ve been struggling with this, too, even without an impending move.

  7. I think another interesting aspect of this issue is the way all of those tiny, ethically ambiguous, ultimately unanswerable questions affect your ability to make other, larger decisions: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html

    I got pregnant right when we got to Denver and I can’t even count the number of hours I’ve wasted in the grocery store paralyzed with indecision, trying to balance the health of my unborn child with the overall health of our planet and trying to save money. And then I feel guilty for wasting my time like that. Ugh. So you’re definitely not alone, and you’re definitely not the only one who’s cried with the futility of ever knowing that you’re doing the right thing.

    • Liz, that’s a fascinating insight. And I hadn’t read that article before — thanks for the link.

      All these layers of guilt, stress, and emotion built on making the “right” choice, and there really never is one.

      I need to ponder this.

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