An Embarrassment of Riches

This is an addendum to my RV post from yesterday.

My husband asked me why we couldn’t just declutter without moving into an RV. A decent question, with a simple answer: because we can’t. I mean, clearly, if we have the space, we find a way to fill it. So it seems to me the answer is to have less space and force ourselves to make do with less.

Maybe the RV is extreme, and putting our house up for sale in the current housing market probably isn’t the best idea. But how else can I get myself to make do with less?

And then the other decent question my husband asked: Why should we make do with less?

“We got rid of a whole bunch of stuff in October,” he observes. “I look around and pretty much everything I see has a use or a potential use. Why would we get rid of something useful?”

“Because it’s more than we need,” I explain. “It’s too much for me to keep track of and care for. It weighs on me.”

There seems to be something almost spiritual about letting go of possessions. Buddhists like the idea. The Happy Janssens were motivated to minimize and hit the road in large part from a desire to emulate Jesus and his disciples back in the day. Nuns, priests, and monks in a variety of religious traditions take vows of poverty and live with the least number of possessions necessary, some even making a living from literally begging for what they need.

Is there value in this practice for the non-priests among us? In Buddhism, there are the monks, who devote their lives to meditation and live physically separated from the rest of the world. And then there are the householders, who practice the non-attachment and other facets of Buddhism while living within the world. Living within the world and especially living the life of a parent makes the practice of minimal living more difficult. I mean, would it really make sense for me to get rid of my son’s play kitchen or my daughter’s board games as part of my own spiritual practice? Would it have any benefit to them?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really want to know.

There are plenty of decisions I make as a parent that are unpopular with my children (getting them immunizations, enforcing their bedtimes, washing their faces) but which I do because I can see the big picture and the benefits for them in the long run. Is living with less one of those decisions?

When my daughter was born, I bought a minimum of baby items, with the plan to avoid bringing so much stuff into the house. I figured it would be easier to not have the stuff in the first place than it would be to get rid of it after we had it. I found out very quickly just how difficult it is to stop the influx of stuff.

Is it really bad to have stuff? Is it better to live a more minimalist life? Would having fewer material possessions help us focus on the things that really matter to us, like our relationships with each other?

I don’t know. But what I’ve realized lately is that I’m embarrassed  by the amount of stuff we have. Back when I was buying all of those gifts for the charitable causes, we had a big stack of wrapped presents on the window seat in our dining room. When people would come over, I was quick to explain that those weren’t ours. We were giving those gifts away. I didn’t want them to think that so many gifts were for just our family. Then when the Christmas gifts from friends and family for us started coming in and stacking up under the tree and overflowing onto the floor and the couches on either side, I no longer had the “we’re giving these away” defense. I was embarrassed that we had so much already and were getting so much more stuff.

They're not ours, I swear!

My husband calls it “Liberal guilt.” I don’t think that encompasses what I’m feeling. It’s more that I’m worried that we’re flaunting our wealth by having so many things. Not that we’re “wealthy” per se, except as compared with the vast majority of the rest of the world. I always wanted to live on much less than what we made and give away the rest. I’m embarrassed that we’re not doing that.

In some ways, I preferred it when we made half as much money in a place with a much higher cost of living. It necessitated some difficult choices, but having to make such choices on a daily basis helped keep our values and ideals as a family in mind all of the time.

I just feel like we have too much. I know how to get more, but it’s not clear to me how to get less.

I did find this post on the becoming minimalist blog about minimalism with kids. Maybe I’ll take a look at the book he mentions in the post, too.

8 Replies to “An Embarrassment of Riches”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your desire to get rid of “stuff” though I usually have an easy time of it because I – don’t – like to fill empty spaces. I actually really like and appreciate the empty spaces and barren countertops and absence of items to dust. Which is funny because as I type this I realize I probably feel the urge to de-clutter for very different reasons than yours. Mine is less altruistic – I just don’t like dealing with “stuff” 🙂

    And now I apologize for my share in the influx of gifts; though typically I use the gift-giving occasions to make up for a lack of physical time spent. Perhaps in the future I should set aside the money otherwise spent on gifts and instead buy a plane ticket. I would much prefer to take my niece to the Zoo, or sit and color with my nephew for hours, or share a cup of tea and a philosophical discussion with you, or a terrifying (to me) bike ride with my brother-in-law. But I find myself replacing those experiences with items, for the sheer sake of distance and shortage of time.

    And I agree with the tendency of kids to accumalate a lot of stuff…my friends Meagan and Steve set a strict $50 limit on gifts for their kids for that reason. But I have been equally appalled listening to the lists of gifts co-workers have gotten their kids (an iPad for a 9 year old? REALLY??)

    But I digress. May I offer the suggestion that if paring down stuff itself ceases to be a viable option, that organizing and utilizing space optimally would be the next step? I know you have focused quite a bit on decluttering and organizing, but maybe more of that would make the existing stuff less daunting? I know for me, the act of sorting and organizing and labeling makes me feel like I have less stuff and more importantly can access the stuff I have without distress. Just a few rambling thoughts. Love you and miss you!!!

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    1. We understand and accept that our far-away family send gifts because they aren’t able to spend the time they’d like to spend with us and the kids. If we had less stuff to start with, I think it would be easier to handle the gifts without feeling overwhelmed. But if we could have more time with you, that would be better than any gift you could send.

      I would be hesitant to set a $ limit on gifts. We accept that our kids are going to acquire things, we’d just prefer quality over quantity. I worry that a $ limit would send the wrong message. In general, I would rather the kids get one $50 gift than five $10 gifts. It’s not the price of the items that’s tough for me…it’s the sheer volume.

      And as far as the empty spaces getting filled part, I don’t like to fill empty spaces. They just seem to fill up on their own. There are a few spots in our home—the dining room table, the section of counter next to the microwave, the living room floor—that seem to attract crap. If those spaces are clear, they aren’t for long. Stuff just accumulates there magically. I think that if we had less stuff around, maybe there would be less stuff to be attracted to the empty spaces.

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  2. Part of my issue with wanting to live differently is the kids being old enough to see what others have and asking for it all, you know? Like right now pretty much all of Niels’ friends have a Nintendo DS and that has been pointed out to me repeatedly. Luckily, there is at least one other parent who has resisted and the child is a good friend of Niels’. I have actually had another parent say to me, “Niels needs a DS.” No child needs a DS. Really.

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    1. Ugh. I’d forgotten about that situation. We don’t encounter it much yet because my kids are still so young and not in school, and most of the families we hang out with are on a similar page as we are. So far. He needs a DS? That is quite the assertion.

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  3. I have the same “if there’s a space, fill it” issue. Perhaps it’s good that we don’t live somewhere that we can afford to have a garage, because I probably would fill it. I was thinking about this last night: I grew up in a house without a garage but it was a huge old victorian house with a full basement and an attic so big that we really only used half of it. Both were unfinished but when we decided we didn’t want something anymore, it went into one of those two places to be thought about later. Much later, usually. I still have a hard time severing connections to stuff immediately. It’s like I want to be able to separate from it first before deciding that I’m done. I remember putting my Barbies in the attic because I thought I shouldn’t be playing with them but still bringing them down and playing with them on a regular basis.

    It might be obvious, then, that what I tend to struggle with is (to quote the minimalist blog you linked), “That we don’t need to live life like everyone else.” I really do believe that but then when I look around at what my peers and my sons’ peer’s families are doing, I feel anxiety about not doing exactly the same. That is a challenge in this area, as you know. We are well-off compared to the rest of the country but there is just so much wealth in this area! It’s distracting.

    Sorry to write a book in your comments. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. 🙂

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    1. I remember all too well the material challenges in the Bay Area. I remember the struggle of wanting to live differently from those around me while at the same time feeling jealous of the bigger houses and fancier stuff. In that sense, living in Salt Lake has been a great relief to me. I guess this is just a new kind of challenge.

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  4. Had dinner with some friends recently and was reminded of how different lifestyles could be — 3 rooms were effectively playrooms for the one child with each of the rooms having as many toys as my 2 kids share, and I think that the house had 4 televisions. Different strokes for different folks.

    When we lived in our Astrovan (all cooking outside) for 5 months, one thing that I really missed was an oven.

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