We are not our stuff

Photograph by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/16
Photograph by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/16

In 1886, Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” which you may, like me, have read in your middle or high school lit class. In this story, Tolstoy tells us about a man who will be given as much land as he can physically outline by walking. The catch is, the man must create this perimeter and return to his starting point before the sun sets in order for the deal to be finalized. As you may recall, with each hill the man crests, he sees in the distance some other enticing parcel that he’d like to own, and so his perimeter increases. As the man’s greed overtakes him, he loses sight of the fact he must complete the circuit on his perimeter before sunset. He ultimately succumbs to exhaustion before he can close the loop, and dies. In the end, we learn that the amount of land the man actually needed, was the six feet or so of earth removed from the hole he would be buried in. Nice huh? Of all the short stories I read in school, this one and To Build a Fire stuck with me. It must be something about the ridiculously fragile nature of life that lodges these tales in to my long term memory…but I digress. Back to Tolstoy and the idea of man’s ability to trick himself in to thinking he needs more “stuff” in order to find happiness.

This is obviously not a new idea. We all know that for some psychological or maybe even evolutionary reason, the accumulation of “stuff” has become central to the success meme that drives our consumption-based economy and in fact, seems to motivate a large swath of Western culture. We are told, through various means, that things will make us happy. The bigger the house, the bigger the boat, the nicer the car, the better the clothes, the more opulent the watch or blingier the ring, clearly the happier we’ll be. Right? Do we all agree with this line of thinking? No? Well why not?

Anecdotally we see why not in the news almost daily. There are very wealthy people who are miserable. The rich overdose. The famous commit suicide. There is suffering to found in the finest zip codes. But alas, there are also very wealthy people who seem to be quite happy. In the remaining 99% of the pie chart, there are also very poor people who are miserable, who overdose, who commit suicide. But there are also billions of very poor people the world over who are quite happy. So if our happiness just doesn’t have as much to do with how much stuff we have, what’s up with our quest for more of that stuff?

There’s a great joke that Daniel Tosh has where he takes issue with the old “money can’t buy happiness” line. He says something along the lines of, we live in America so who says money can’t buy happiness…it can buy a wave runner…and have you ever seen a sad person on a wave runner?   It’s funny and true, to a point. The actual act of riding a wave runner is certainly a lot of fun. But is it fun paying tens of thousands of dollars for a wave runner? Do you derive happiness from filling it with gas or storing it for months during the winter? Is it fun when it breaks down, as it inevitably will? On net, how much happiness does it actually bring? I’m reminded of another joke about boat ownership that goes, the happiest two days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it. I imagine that adage is a bit closer to the truth of the matter.

We, me included, get caught up in this idea that we need to adorn ourselves with things and that these things should make us happy. The more stuff we can bolt on to our fragile existence, the more fulfilled our lives will be. A house is not enough, it needs to be a bigger house. A bigger house is not enough, we need a lake house now, or a beach house. One car is not enough, we need two cars, or three cars. Maybe a car just for the weekend. Maybe we need an even bigger house, with a bigger garage to hold all of our bigger cars? And we need outfits, lots and lots of outfits. And shoes, pairs and pairs of shoes. And watches, but not just any old watches, Rolexes and Tags. And jewelry – diamonds, not cubic zirconia. And the toil for more continues.

So this is the rather obvious thought that occurred to me as I stood in the shower a few nights ago (sorry for the visual). We are not our stuff. We aren’t even close. We are only what we are. We can only be in one building at a time, one room at a time, one chair at a time, wear one pair of shoes at a time, tell time with one watch at a time, and so on. We can be either inside or outside. We can be in only one car at a time or on a bicycle or on the train or on a plane, but not all at once. We can be relaxing at the beach or working to pay for our next trip to relax at the beach. We can be at the lake or not. I think back about Tolstoy’s doomed protagonist and recognize that we truly can only occupy just the slightest bit of space at any given time. So where are you right now? How much of the stuff you own is in your sight? Do you even think about the stuff you own that you can’t see?  How are you feeling at this moment in the slight bit of space that you are currently occupying and does your stuff have any influence over that feeling?

Here’s what I’m driving toward. If your hours, days, weeks, months, or even years are spent dreaming about some happiness that awaits you in another place at a future date, then you are not living in the present moment. If you are holding your current potential for well-being hostage by making happiness contingent upon your future accumulation of certain material things, then you’re in the trap. This is part of the illusion. Rarely do we stop to inquire of ourselves, have much have I let my happiness become a function of my setting? Is my happiness a function of my possessions? Is my happiness a function of my income, my job title, my neighborhood, my car, etc. Am I wrapping my happiness around what I think others believe about the stuff I own?

I know I’m filling this post with lots of questions, but this type of reflection is important. It’s something I wish my 20 year old self would’ve thought a bit more deeply about, before my 40 year old self stressed over mortgages and car payments and student loans and credit cards. Don’t get me too wrong here; I recognize we need some things. I’m not advocating we sell our stuff and move in to a hippy commune somewhere. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been born in a country where I can get a glass of clean water from the tap without a second thought about whether or not I’ll be doubled over with dysentery within the hour. So in the spirit of Maslow, what do we really want? We want to be comfortable. We want warmth when it’s cold outside. We want to feel cool when it’s hot outside. We want to be safe from harm. We want clean water and delicious meals. We want to love and be loved. We want companionship. We want to be intellectually challenged. We want to enjoy nature. We want to be healthy. We want to breathe clean air. I think these wants are universal. When we recognize that nothing in our lives is permanent, that everything breaks down, that stuff gets old, that things crumble, that we lose things, that our precious items gets stolen, then we may just start to decouple ourselves from the gimmick that we’ve been sold; the canard that says we need a bunch of nice things in order to be happy in our lives. I mean, how much stuff do you really need?

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