I had a garage sale recently, designed to reduce possessions to only those things we need and are using. It was wildly effective, and what I didn’t sell, I donated. The result is an empty garage and a home that finally echoes again, and feels big. When I sell things, I interact a lot – I have a strong sales background – and I had a chance to survey garage sale visitors about their lives and attitudes. For purposes of this post, two commonalities stood out:
- People who knew they didn’t need what they were buying: shopper after shopper said “I have nowhere to put any more stuff” or “my house is already so full and cluttered” or “I don’t really need this” and yet they bought stuff anyway. If not for them, the sale might have been a disaster. In that way, the sale was what I intended it to be, profiting by transferring a lifestyle I don’t want to people who insist on living it.
- People who bought for other people: I was surprised at how many people said they had no more room for anything else, but were buying for a sister, granchild, or even ex-wife. It’s as if these folks had filled every nook and cranny of their own lives with so much stuff that, in order to keep shopping, they had to transfer the lifestyle to still more people. Again, I was glad to make the exchange for liquid capital.
- People looking to profit from other people’s desire for stuff: One of the newer phenomena is people scanning bar codes – on books and CDs especially (Is there still profit in books and CDs? If so, then not for long. Where’s that used CD store in your town – is it still there? And didn’t a Borders near you just close?). But they also tried to scan other items, clearly intending them for resale. I could have been offended that they were trying to use me as a cheap vendor, but I was more than happy for them to put the effort into unloading an inventory that I was only too happy to see depart.
What I glean from these three consistencies is a commonality – people are still deeply committed to stuff, long past the point that it has any real value, purpose, or utility. They’re so committed that, even after they’ve crowded their lives with all the stuff they can get, they’ll try to have other people vicariously own their stuff by giving, trading, or selling it to them.
Stuff is the centerpiece in a whole cadre of lives – it is the reason some people exist. It is life itself, for them. Existence is counted not in years lived, or what one has achieved, in meaning experienced, or even where one has mattered – it is measured in the accumulation of artifacts of other people’s lives and society’s need to manufacture. It’s not just a consumer lifestyle, it’s the all-consuming, product-driven life.
Here we spend a lot of time talking about work as the primary font of meaning in a life, and how stripping down for work, streamlining a life toward it, is visualized and exercised. If everyone adopted our mindset, no one would show up at the garage sale we use to strip down. But one can’t help, still, feeling some sense that in order to go on, you have to be willing to let other people fall along the way.
Crossing the desert, you have to let the Mr. and Mrs. Howell of Gilligans Island (if you remember that), laden with commodified articles of living, the meaningless (in the desert of goals) furniture of experience, drop in the sun, weighed down with things, as you go on toward a goal. For them, the stuff was the goal, and they got the stuff, held the stuff, and we don’t want to judge them for that.
Except, it doesn’t even satisfy them, even when they have all they can hold – they have to go on grasping, in the death throws of over-satiation, for more and more, desiring that the stuff they hold will fill the world, and become the ground on which they rest, the air they breathe, the liquid in their veins, and replace all human striving with objects in a world-sized garage.
There’s some online conversation about an IKEA store that’s supposed to one day hit the area in which I live, and people are treating it like yet another furniture store – and that’s so missing the point. The whole premise behind IKEA is not still more stuff to fill up and clutter, possess, and consume a life – but simplification, taking only what you need, living lightly, even somewhat disposably (stuff you keep forever can easily be thought of as prison bars with a life sentence), and so freeing up a life to pursue meaning elsewhere.
One can’t help but wonder if the soul, finding an unsatisfyingly endless pursuit in shopping, is terrified of the most core questions of existence – what does my life mean? what might it mean? how might I get there? – and, phrased for purposes of this post, “What might I do with my life if no one needed any more stuff?” Instead, these questions are obfuscated with endless acquistion, as if possessing things lets us transfer their significance to ourselves.
So here’s a question to think about: if you were only ever allowed to own 100 things, for each member of your household, for the rest of your life, (including underpants, forks, hats, and toothbrushes), how would your life be different, and what would you do with the rest of it?