Monday, March 11, 2013

repost: why I declutter

Metapost: my first attempt at the newfangled blogging thing ended when I decided I no longer identified with the name I'd chosen, and thus The Organized Geek was abandoned.  However, there was some good stuff in there, and I'll be reposting a few selected entries occasionally, so they don't get entirely lost to oblivion. 

Originally posted on 05.11.12.

Stuff is a part of life.  Stuff is accumulated, it serves various purposes, it's an indicator of wealth (did you see how big his flat-screen television was?), it makes us happy.  We need stuff, and over the course of history, most possessions have been valuable, scarce, and often important for survival. 

But that was then.  In the 'developed world,' at this point, stuff is cheap.  Ridiculously cheap.  Most things are essentially disposable; clothing, electronics, furniture, and even vehicles are all purchased with the expectation that they'll break, wear out, or fall apart in a relatively very short time and need replacing.  Where our grandparents would save up for and treasure a good winter coat for many years, we offhandedly own twenty that are all shoddy.  But it doesn't matter, because even before their short lifetimes are up, we'll probably get bored of them and buy new ones out of pure whim.  

Minimalism isn't really about not owning stuff.  It's about identifying value.  

At first blush, it might seem that the root cause of overconsumption, rampant consumer waste, and an actual topic and audience for the TV show Hoarders is over-valuing our stuff.  I can't possibly get rid of any of my twenty winter coats despite the fact that live in the tropics because I love them.  I need them.  They give me a sense of worth, and I would be losing something valuable if I didn't have them.

But let's think about this.

Is this really value?  What is value?  Is it what someone else would pay for the object, or some quantification of the pleasure or usefulness that you personally derive from it?  It's in your possession, after all.  Are you truly happier with many cheap, flimsy things than you would be with fewer really spectacularly well-made ones?  How do you know?

If you're deriving neither use nor happiness from the item, regardless of what you paid for it or what its 'original price' was, it is worthless

Are we, perhaps, actually under-valuing our stuff?  The phrase 'materialism' is generally used to indicate the hoarder-like behavior of accumulating stuff for the sake of accumulating stuff.  But what if we could forge a better relationship with our possessions, and genuinely care about them?  This is a fundamentally different approach.  Appreciating, taking care of, and really enjoying the things in our lives, rather than being ruled by them, seems to me to be a better form of materialism.  If you fell in love with an excellent coat, wouldn't you want it to last for years so you could go on enjoying it instead of throwing it away after a season?  Disposable culture has redefined our relationship with stuff, and not for the better.  Perhaps the problem is that we're not materialistic enough!

When I was little, I participated in the pog craze.  In case you skipped that one, it was technically based on a game developed with milk caps but turned into a pre-teen consumer frenzy in the mid-90's.  Kids bought, collected, hoarded, and traded these little cardboard discs with pictures on them.  Very rarely was the game actually played; it was mostly about the collecting process.  We'd set up little trading posts with each other, and proudly display our expansive collections.  It was quite the phenomenon.

At the time, I had some good friends who lived just down the street.  I'd go over to their house, we'd each claim a corner of the room to set up the pogs we were interested in trading, and then go visit the other 'shops' to haggle and barter.  My little mind was struck with a notion that seemed to have some merit.  My shop instituted a 'quantity for quality' policy, wherein I would encourage my friends to offer their good pogs and in exchange I'd give them piles of crappy ones.  I even made a sign.  They thought this was a wonderful deal.  They were getting ten pogs, while only surrendering one!  What a chump I was!

After a few weeks of this, my friends noticed that I'd accumulated all their high-quality (this is relative, of course.  Fundamentally they were all just silly little cardboard discs.) pogs, while they were left with piles and piles of really cheap, lower-quality ones.  They got sore about it and stopped trading with me.

If what you value is having many things, you will surely wind up with (metaphorically speaking) large piles of low-quality pogs.  Perhaps it won't be a deliberate or conscious process (my friends certainly didn't think to extrapolate the situation beyond each individual trade), but over time actions will align themselves with core values.  Then all the stuff will weigh you down

So what happens if you value good things instead?  If you can appreciate having a smaller number of things, but everything you own is your favorite thing?  Where moving is easy, and there are no piles to trip over, and all your possessions bring you joy?  Wouldn't that be marvelous?

That's why I talk so much about getting rid of things.  Not really out of any ascetic drive or sense of self-deprivation, but out of selfishness.  I want to love all my things, instead of being annoyed by how they're in the way and dusty and taking up so much space.  I want the freedom to take a job across the country and move into a smaller place.  I want to spend much less time thinking about, stressing about, and cleaning my stuff.  I want good stuff that actually enriches my life, dammit!

I'm in no way unique in this, of course, and there are many out there who are on the same journey

On one of the above-linked articles (I forget now which one), one comment in particular struck me:
"I don’t want to be rich, I want to be free. And freedom is worth more than stuff."

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