In the recent fire on a British Airways plane taking off from Vegas, the biggest news turned out not to be the incident itself but the scandalous and in fact illegal acts of all the passengers who stopped to get their bags down from the overhead lockers rather than evacuating the plane immediately. Given the billowing smoke and the direct risk to their lives, you have to wonder why they prioritised getting their hand luggage off over getting out and guaranteeing their survival.
Our love of stuff is not really news, of course, with consumerism being a clear trend even since the late 1800s. The celebrity culture and aggressive marketing that have become such an integral part of society ensure that we’re constantly lusting after a new bag, or phone, or car, or a whole range of other stuff that we most likely do not actually need (yes, yes, I work in marketing – aren’t we clever!).
I went through a “honeymoon phase” when I had my first job, and salary, and lacked any real obligations (family, mortgage, Volvo and so on) and I revelled in being able to buy whatever I felt like whenever I felt like it. It was only when emptying my flat of seven years to leave Switzerland that I discovered all the cupboards and a basement locker full of stuff. Stuff that I had forgotten I had, not great quality, nothing special… I did a huge clear-out then and I feel like I’ve been doing clear-outs ever since.
Actually, before that the biggest shock for me came when I visited a Masai hut in Kenya. “This is where the children sleep, this is where my wife and I sleep, this is the kitchen, and here the cow.” All of this was in a single circular hut that was smaller than my bedroom; returning home to shelves full of shoes and handbags was quite a reality check. But, then, of course, everyday life took over and I returned to normal buying habits.
When I quit my job to go freelance, I had another phase during which I cut down on unnecessary expenditures – the clothes I didn’t really need, the new handbag, the shoes… but again I soon returned to “normal” spending levels once I started earning money, which “unfortunately” happened all too soon.
As a reaction against consumerism, we have the trend of minimalism along with the idea of “simple living”. I’ve met people recently who’ve emptied their entire apartments to become full-time travellers with only a couple of bags of “stuff”, presumably the bare essentials, remaining. I don’t know how this is possible – when I’m adventuring, if anything I have to buy new kit! – but more to the point I don’t think I want to go that far. Stuff can remind us of friends and family who are no longer with us, help us to express who we are, and make living our lives that bit more fun / comfortable / luxurious.
That being said, we may be hanging on to stuff for the “wrong” reasons. We keep clothes that we no longer fit into as they remind us of when we were young and skinny. We keep school books and essays to remember how clever we once were. Most of all, we seem to be clinging to an old lifestyle that no longer reflects who we are today: we keep clubbing outfits when we’re now more likely to be staying in, high-flying corporate suits when we’re now working mostly from home, cupboards full of wine glasses and posh china when we no longer really do any big entertaining, our children’s books and toys when they’ve grown up and moved out years ago.
I almost wish I could start again, start from a blank slate, and only gather things that are either really useful or of great value (economic or, more likely, sentimental). I can’t change the past, of course, but I can make better choices going forward. I can ask myself if I really need a new handbag – probably not! – and if I can maybe get by with borrowing a tent rather than buying one and adding to my storage pile in the attic. And I can keep on going with new rounds of clear-outs of my existing stuff, to ensure that it’s all still supporting who I am today and my current lifestyle.
What about you? Are you holding on to “stuff” from a previous life that simply doesn’t reflect your current needs and habits? Is it all too easy to get out your credit card and make that spontaneous purchase that you really don’t need at all? Fighting these tendencies takes a lot of energy, and it can be emotionally draining especially to sort through all those old boxes and cupboards and confront past memories and identities – but the feeling of lightness and peace that you get from clearing out your house and, by extension, your life, can be incredibly freeing and ultimately, I think, worth the effort!