The Tyranny of Stuff
My holiday wish list last year was simple — I just wanted one pound of good coffee. For all the folks who were kind enough to ask, “What would you like for Christmas?” my answer was the same — a bag of good, dark, aromatic French roast coffee. Something fair trade and organic.
I didn’t want a new laptop (although I could use one); I didn’t want an LCD TV (even though my current TV is the size of an old fridge). I didn’t need new shoes, DVDs, an e-reader, a light-saber, a cross-over vehicle, a pillow filled with barley, or adult footie pajamas in a leopard print. Instead, I wanted something that I would use and use up. Something I could savor over the course of a month or two. Something I would not have to feed, water, dust, or maintain. (See also: Stuff Will Never Make You Organized)
I have enough stuff, and the older I get, the more I realize that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. I might even go so far as to suggest that stuff is outright tyrannical. First, I have to figure out where to put the stuff. I tend to live a fairly Spartan life, and I like it that way. I don’t suffer random new objects well. New things enter my home only after a vetting process that rivals the Smithsonian’s (minus the budget). Unless I’ve planned for it and have already figured out where and how I’ll use it, the latest object of my affection remains safely pixelated on the computer screen.
Stuff also needs to be figured out, decoded, programmed, booted, rebooted, scrubbed for viruses, and defragmented. I love technology, but mixing the holidays with high-end electronics feels like mixing a bubble bath with three stray cats. Maybe next year.
New stuff invariably makes some old stuff obsolete too. The obsolete stuff either needs to find a retirement spot in my house or be passed on to another family through a yard sale or charitable donation. How many of us can remember what our garage looked like before it became a cosmic way-station for half-dead consumer goods? How many 20 gallon bins does it take before we all collectively say “enough”?
And stuff multiplies. It’s never just one item that satiates the consumer palate any more. Stuff has peripherals, upgrades, add-ons, apps, and enhancements. Electronics breed like amorous rabbits on drunken holiday. For instance, most teenagers’ gaming systems look like control centers that should be able to manipulate the weather or redirect an orbiting satellite to finally locate D.B. Cooper and that missing 200 grand.
More stuff, especially more complicated stuff, tends to require more expensive repairs. When you bring something new into your home, you’re not only adopting that object, you’re also agreeing to finance the repair, fix it yourself, or toss it out guilt-free when it finally does break (and it always breaks, eventually). Maybe I’m too analytical, but I’m suspicious of any object that can’t be taken apart, explored, tinkered with and (hopefully) fixed when the occasion calls for it.
In the end, more stuff is often the chain that binds us to ideas we’d like to move beyond, places we’d like to leave behind, lives we’d like to recreate, or chaos we’d like escape. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Objects are in the saddle and ride mankind,” and I tend to agree with the old fella. I wonder how many readers would like to come out of the proverbial closet about loving their low-stuff holidays. How many would-be list-makers faced the perplexed expressions of friends and family as they defended their simple holiday requests last year? How was a holiday with less stuff ultimately more fulfilling?