Instinctively we all know that the best things in life are not things at all but relationships and experiences. This is not to say that taking enjoyment in things in is inherently evil; things can bring us great job. The problem lies when we give too much meaning to our stuff or when we use the acquisition of stuff to mask a deeper yearning.
I’m a fan of nice things and my lifestyle in London afforded a wad of those things: handbags, clothes, shoes, surprising amounts of stationary and a shocking amount of cooking gadgets. However, once I left my job as a lawyer and decided to go travelling, two things happened….
Taking up space
Firstly I had to rent my room in my London apartment,which forced me to downsize in order to move my stuff into storage. It was appalling to me how much I had accumulated for just me.
Once we own things, we are required to look after them not just physically but also mentally. Even if we don’t religiously dust those books we often feel guilty for owning something we don’t use. Every time I saw the dresses in my closet I thought about how much they cost, what they represented to me at the time I bought them and how I had failed myself by leaving them wasting away in the cupboard. Each item haunted me with the thought that it didn’t make my life better or more enjoyable as I believed it would at the time of purchase.
I decided to sell as much as I could and through selling just a few items which I had stored away and assumed were worthless, I managed to pay for my flight to India. Granted I had the motivation and time to do this but the exercise made me acutely aware that I had gained as much, if not more, satisfaction from donating and selling the things than from the original purchase. I probably reduced what I owned by half but I still could have gone further. I have since forgotten what it was I had so I haven’t missed any of it.
Secondly I realised that I had less of an urge to spend my time and money shopping. Upon further pondering I realised that I used shopping more than I thought to ease the pain of finding my job so dissatisfying. I’m a bargain hunter at heart so I convinced myself that a charity shop purchase or the third half-price winter coat “didn’t count”. Clearly, I need a winter coat but I was using my purchasing power to numb the negative emotion that what I did for a living was not satisfying me. The purchases produced a small relief to that pain. When I left my job, the root of the pain was eased making the pain-killing shopping less necessary.
Even starting travelling I had too much “stuff” and over the course of five months in India I whittled it down to the point where even my backpack wasn’t full. Yes, I had a laptop and a camera with me but with decent insurance and a reliable back up system, the items themselves held no value to me. I trained myself not to buy souvenirs. When I thought about purchases from previous trips I realised that they sat on the shelf collecting dust and that the memories of my travels would always exist long beyond the piece itself. The thought that everything in my bag was replaceable, that nothing was truly valuable was the most freeing experience I had felt in a long time.
Back to Reality
Of course this practice was easier when I was travelling and had no real responsibility. It was therefore a fascinating experience arriving in Melbourne and realising that I needed stuff to start a life here. It felt great to have the opportunity to start from scratch, to think about what I really needed. Every piece I have bought has an inherent joy because it will be used. It is amazing how little you actually need if you plan and it feels surprisingly good to wear everything you own regularly, like everything is being used to its full potential!
I’m not suggesting that we all throw everything out and start again but these days I ask myself the following questions while I’m standing in a cash register queue: Why am I buying this? Do I need it? Will it add to my life significantly? I still buy things I don’t really need but like any other habit it takes practice. I’m training my mind to remind itself of how happy I was with nearly nothing and sometimes I win that battle and put the dress back on the rack!