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?

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Guest's picture

I love the idea of having less stuff. To get there, though, I'd have to stop wanting the stuff, and that's the hardest part for me. I *like* my DVDs, and my books, and jewlery, and my pretty but useless trinkets that line the shelves in my home.

Would my life be simpler without all the stuff? Absolutely. Am I working on paring things down? Yes, every day. Does it ever seem to help? *sighs* No, because something always seems to come and take the place of the thing I just got rid of.

But I'm working on it, and that's something.

Guest's picture
Mary H.

I totally agree. We tend to move a lot and I don't want to pack more "stuff". So, for the last several years, my request for birthday, Christmas, etc. has been "give me anything consumable". Works great!

Kentin Waits's picture

Mary -- great way to phrase it. I think I just may make "give me anything consumable" my new mantra for birthdays/holidays. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

Couldn't agree more. As a single mom in an incredibly small two-bedroom apartment, all that was requested for Christmas were Amazon gift cards (to feed my Kindle) and books for my three-year-old. Anything else takes up too much space and takes away from time with each other.

Guest's picture

One of the most urgent methods I use to clear my place of stuff is to watch an episode of Hoarders. By the time the credits roll, garbage is gone, dishes are clean and possible cat skeleton hideouts (why are there always cat skeletons in these people's homes??) are thoroughly inspected.

Kentin Waits's picture

Andrew -- Hoarders has the same effect on me. Nothing else is quite such a motivator!

Guest's picture

Electronics and associated periphials are especially prone to accumulate. Chargers with no idea what they charge, unlabeled CD's, yes there are a few floppies left.

We need to go through our kitchen and eliminate a lot of unneeded "stuff". I can't recall where I read it, but souvenir cups and coffee mugs take a lot of pantry space. Forget the china and family heirlooms...they are off limits.

Andrea Karim's picture

Electronic equipment is the biggest clutterer in our house, and it's the worst since 90% of it is my husbands, so it's not like he will let me actually prune any of it!

Guest's picture

It's also one of my goals to get rid of stuff this year. I hate that cluttered feeling. The thing is that means some items that might be useful some day, I'll have to let go. Letting go, isn't that the crux of the matter? Letting go control, letting go of prestige; prying open our fingers and just realizing that you've got two perfectly good hands now that are free to do whatever they want, if that they are not holding stuff. Keep letting go.

Guest's picture

One of my favorite gifts this year was a purple pen. I had previously owned a purple pen that was just fantastic...until I lost it. When my kids asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told them I wanted my purple pen back. They were able to find the same exact pen and got me two of them. I use it everyday and as silly as it sounds, it just makes my days happier. It was a much better present than some silly, expensive gadget that I would never use.

Andrea Karim's picture

You didn't want a light-saber? Good god, man.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Selling everything I owned over 5 years ago to travel full-time was one of the most freeing (and also initially most difficult) things I ever did. I ended up keeping a few boxes of things I couldn't bear to part with, and when I recently revisited those boxes, I realized I didn't even need that much stuff, and I got rid of half of it!

In so many cases, it's the "stuff" that dictates way more about how our lives play out than it ever should.

Guest's picture

Sadly, many of my relatives don't ask what we might want or need and simply present us with unwanted, unusable, un-storable crap. I actually dropped the gifts off at the thrift store on the way home from one such family celebration this year, but that felt much better than it would have felt dragging it into our home.

Guest's picture

I always remind myself that if I bring it home I'm going to be responsible for caring for it and what if I get tired of it and it ends up in the landfill? It's good to have that awareness as to where all this "stuff" is going to eventually end up.

Guest's picture

Stuff doesn't buy you security, money unspent buys security. Think about this the next time you're bored with the look of a room. Can you rearrange your belongings or collections? Can you try dusting for a month with a lot less on the end tables?

My weakness is bringing home items from my travels as a reminder of the trip and something I enjoyed about it. All of us have these weaknesses. It's all just a matter of balancing it.

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