Materialism creeps into our lives without our knowledge or consent. We see something interesting or hear about an item that appeals to a longing we think is within us. Or we watch an advertisement designed to trigger that longing, even though the longing may be a product of marketing minds whose job it is to create desire where none existed before. However, it happens, we acquire material things. Occasionally, we recognize the pointlessness of accumulation for the sake of accumulation, but only rarely do we react by taking control of our tendency toward instant—or only modestly delayed—gratification.
I cannot begin to recall all the conversations I have had with people who recognized, when they prepared for a household move, the enormous burden of over-accumulation. They were shocked at the sheer volume of “stuff” they had collected. Often, they vowed to discard all the excess, keeping only the necessities, and to never again allow materialism to control their lives. Many of them have expressed thoughts similar to these: “I realized that accumulating material goods had no appreciable impact on my happiness. In fact, when I discovered that I had collected enormous amounts of what amounted to useless garbage, I was stunned. I vow to never again permit myself to buy for the sake of short-term gratification.” Or words to that effect. Most of those words, though, were hollow. As mine have been.
Recently, I have played with the idea of imagining a life without all the individual pieces of clutter in my life. I try to imagine how different my life might be if an item around the house were to simply disappear. Thus far, I have decided my life would be impacted to almost no extent if all the knickknacks on display on shelves were gone; the empty shelf would look slightly different. My clothes closet would be roomier if most of the clothes I seldom or never wear were to escape. The drawers in the kitchen would have fewer items in them if the kitchen tools I never use were to disappear. Of course, it’s easy to imagine life without the items that don’t really matter. But what of the ones that do?
I regularly glance at clocks throughout the house. When I imagine a life without them, I cannot foresee any insurmountable obstacles. And if the cordless phones in rooms around the house were to disappear, I would get by without undue hardship. I have discovered, in thought at least, that I could live comfortably without staplers, pots and pans of multiple sizes and shapes, most of the chairs in the house, all the tables (provided I could sit at the counter), and dozens upon dozens of other things.
I could live without the gadgets I have allowed to enter my life: the Echo Dot that serves as home to Alexa, whose weather forecasts and jokes both are unreliable; the electric kitchen timer that allows me to ignore time until reminded; the remotes for two televisions (and the two televisions); the ceiling fans; etc., etc, Of course, some of these items, and many more, seem to add convenience to my life, but they also rob me of presence. I do not seem to pay close attention to the really important things around me because my attention is diverted or made unnecessary by “things.”
This recent imaging life without is not new. For as far back as I can remember, I have occasional bouts of dissatisfaction with myself for what I consider superficiality. I regularly rediscover I either am too attached to material things or insufficiently appreciative of the material things that really matter. I have aspired to minimalism since I was in college; I have not yet succeeded. I’ve had fantasies of living in a single room cabin, far from civilization, outfitted with a bed, a single-burner stove, a plate, a knife, a fork, a skillet, a coffee pot, and a refrigerator (the cabin has electric power; my imagination is not prepared for full-on asceticism). In my cabin, I would write a manifesto for life on planet Earth. Yeah.
Of course these thoughts of excessive materialism lead to, or are accompanied by, questions of whether the same superficiality exists with regard to people. Do I take people for granted, failing to give sufficient dedicated thought to how important they are to me? Though I recognize their importance, I doubt I often allow myself (or require myself) to dedicate more than a few moments to allow my appreciation for them to fill me; to let it seep into every pore and to wash over me. I think love requires that sort of dedicated attention. It requires a recognition that another person’s existence is key to your own and that without it you would be like an amputee forced to rebuild a life with a vital piece missing.
As usual, my mind wandered away from the road I was on. Minimalism. That’s what has been on my mind. I think life without the debris of materialistic urges might constitute a more pure existence. Without the detritus, I think we might experience more serenity, unencumbered by meaningless possessions. Maybe. But will I ever experience it? I doubt it. I still have too much “stuff,” even in my mind as I imagine life without it.
When I was graduating from college and contemplating going to Denmark, my professor said I should travel before “you become obligated to your possessions.” I’ve never forgotten that, and though I am less acquisitive than my siblings, I now have that obligation. Like you, I find that troubling.
A worthy “thought experiment”