Why Do We Own So Much?
Burning Down Storage Units
Recently, at work, I have been involved in a number of incidents where commercial premises have been destroyed by fire, luckily with no loss of life or serious injury. I started thinking about what would happen if a storage facility were to burn down. Would anyone's life come to a grinding halt just because their stored possessions had been destroyed or would it allow them to get on with their lives in more freedom? I realise that some people use these facilities to store valuables or even all their possessions whilst moving or travelling, but I am thinking more of the people whose possessions have outgrown their house.
The TV show “Storage Wars” about people bidding to buy the contents of abandoned storage units. Some of these are executor sales after the owner's death but most are people who have just stopped paying for the space without removing their property. They were willing to pay for these items to be stored for a year or more and then either forgot about these things or just lost interest in them. So, how much value is there in the items in storage that are allowed to sit without being cared for or looked at? And how upset would their owners be if they were destroyed?
Why Do We Own So Much?
Shortly after these musings , I came across Leo Babauta's article "A Simple Strategy for Simplifying" in which he discussed changing the way we look at ownership of objects. Suggesting that we should only "own" something as long as it is useful and then pass it on to someone else who can make use of it. By regarding objects in this way, things flow in and out of your life without picking up too many sentimental values. Sentiments are formed when items are linked to people and memories. If the memories are that strong they will remain with you and not require an object to trigger them. The people, relationships and the memories are important, the objects are not.
Another issue that prevents people parting with their things is what they have cost to purchase and maintain. This is a particular dilemma for adopters of new technologies as the value often drops dramatically shortly after you purchase it. You cannot recoup your money by selling it so you hang onto it to protect your investment until it gets so old you cannot even give it away. Have you tried to find a home for those floppy disks sitting under your desk recently? Keeping all these unwanted items can result in physical and mental costs in maintenance, storage, cleaning, fixing and keeping track of everything. These costs are even greater if you rent a storage unit because your house has run out of space to keep your stuff.
Areas of Hoarding
In his article Leo discussed three areas that are particularly prone to hoarding:
Firstly the issue of keeping baby clothes and other items in case you have another baby. This is great, but all the time you are holding onto that stuff it is deteriorating and by the time you have another child you may need to replace some of the items anyway. Most couples with children will have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances who are also starting families and would be very grateful to receive some baby items to help them along. Much of our own store of baby equipment and clothes were passed on to family and friends when they had been outgrown. On the birth of our second child, many of the items found their way back to us along with other items that had been gathered in the cycle of passing on between friends. And you still get the memories. You bump into a friend whose child is wearing a top that your child once wore and it sparks a conversation - "Do you remember when ?"
Too Many Books
The second area which seems to be a major problem for many minimalists is their collection of books. Novels are great, but really are you going to read them again? That twist at the end is just not going to be the same next time round. Why not borrow them from a library? Or, if you have already purchased it, pass it on to someone else to enjoy. Cookbooks seem to take up huge amounts of space in many bookshelves but even people with extensive cookbook libraries still use the same two or three books when planning meals so why not get rid of the ones that are not being used and if you need a specific recipe for a particular occasion, look it up online. Keeping other reference books is rarely worthwhile either. The information in them is fixed at a point in time and knowledge is fluid. Even history changes as new sources and evidence come to light. Most of human knowledge is available on the internet although you may have to work at it a bit to sort the good stuff from the bad. If you really want to use reference books then the library can offer a much wider range of books on any subject that the one or two on your bookshelf. I rarely refer to any reference books on my bookshelves now except an atlas which I use to show my kids where places are whilst wondering what their school has been teaching them during geography lessons!
Making Life Beautiful
The third area discussed by Leo was that of decorative items and here I think William Morris had exactly the right idea when he said "Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful". We are in the process of decluttering our decorative items, many of which are on display only because someone else has bought them for us. We are also gradually replacing bland mediocre framed prints with my wife's own paintings.
More Decluttering Required
We still have a long way to go in our decluttering but it is obvious that people and relationships are more important than things. There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a priest escaping from his burning house and watching it burn to the ground. Left with only his bible and the clothes on his back he remarked, "Ah. Freedom at last". And it's true. If my house were to burn down tomorrow (I don't have a storage unit) and all my family (including dogs) were safe, the loss of anything else would not be a tragedy. Everything could be replaced and we have insurance although, I don't know that I would replace a lot of what we would lose which suggest that I still have more decluttering to do.