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Coming to Terms with the Problem of Stuff

At some point the amount of stuff that we have becomes so big that it interferes with our ability to enjoy it.

If you missed it when The Tides Foundation’s The Story of Stuff video went viral, it’s not too late to catch up now. It’s a motivating, empowering short film to watch, particularly in our society, where advertisers and all the psychologists behind those ads equate emptying your pockets in stores with a measure of your brain savvy, manliness, patriotism, mother-love and Christmas spirit.

To me, the most compelling fact in The Story of Stuff  is this:  99% of what you buy winds up in the garbage within six months. Yeah, 99%. That is not a typo.

Ninety nine percent of what you buy ends up here in six months, according to The Story of Stuff. Photo by John Nyberg, Sxc.hu

Ninety nine percent of what you buy ends up here in six months, according to The Story of Stuff. Photo by John Nyberg, Sxc.hu

This does not surprise me at all, due to the piles of broken stuff we have in my house. I keep waiting for the great American consumer uprising, where people far and wide protest against the companies that rip us off. It never comes, but  I’m not really surprised because who has time for an uprising when you have so many piles of broken crap to fix, sort and replace?

How Much is Too Much? Economist Robert Reich’s Take On It

Economist Robert Reich in his book, Aftershock, The Next Economy and America’s Future said, and I’m paraphrasing, that at some point the amount of stuff we have becomes so big that it actually interferes with our ability to enjoy it. My household is probably two turns west of the average middle class American household in terms of our acquisition of stuff (meaning we don’t focus on buying stuff and try hard not to) but we passed go in this regard a long, long time ago.

How do I know? Because I spend absolutely ridiculous amounts of time organizing our stuff, fixing it, spending money to repair or replace it, finding places to store it, putting it away and getting rid of it.

This takes time away from the useful things I can do with my life and I find this reality pathetic, especially considering that the acquisition of stuff does not lead to a meaningful life and can actually lead to despair, according to Dr. Tim Kasser, a psychologist who writes about consumerism.

And if I think in a conspiratorial manner, I realize that it’s good for the economy if I don’t have time in my life to do the meaningful activities that really matter, because then I will be more likely to try to fill the empty hole inside by going shopping. So sometimes I really feel that there is a pitched battle going on between the advertising industry and me. I know it sounds paranoid, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

And if I think in a conspiratorial manner, I realize that it’s good for the economy if I don’t have time in my life to do the meaningful activities that really matter, because then I will be more likely to try to fill the empty hole inside by going shopping.

And as a mother, I’m outraged that more money is spent on psychologists to manipulate the minds of my children into wanting, buying and feeling entitled to things, than is spent on figuring out the best way to educate them or promote their physical, mental and spiritual health.

(And don’t even tell me it’s my job as a parent to protect them from harmful advertising, as if that is actually something that is doable. Yes, ok, no problem, we’ll just go take up residence in a straw hut in the Amazon with the Yanomami.)

Just Throw it Away?

My sister doesn’t struggle with stuff the way I do because she throws everything away. And I mean everything. She abhors clutter and her solution is the garbage pail. I can’t do this, because, living in a rural area I’ve actually been to a garbage dump and I’ve seen first hand that there is no “away” to throw your garbage to. It doesn’t go “away” when you throw it in the pit.

As much as my sister throws things away, I give them away and this helps some. I am acutely aware that lots of people will never have the things they truly need, not to mention extra stuff that I complain about. Recently I was thrilled to discover the swap area at the garbage dump, they will take items that are too decrepit to give to charity. I’ve brought dozens of things there and watched happy people carrying them away. Giving stuff away is the one upside to all this.

Brendan O’Connell’s Walmart Paintings

I’m not so much anti-stuff as I am anti-too-much-stuff. I admit, I love some of my stuff, I often attach sentimental value to things and I’ll even fess up to the fact that sometimes I find it strangely difficult to part with certain stuff I don’t even particularly like. I’ve come to realize that humans do have an important and complex relationship with stuff.

This is illustrated beautifully by painter Brendan O’Connell. He captured on canvas a certain indescribable intimacy between people and objects in his WalMart series of paintings.  I met Brendan a few years ago  and when he told me he was painting Walmart, I didn’t know quite what to say or think.

I’ve come to realize that humans do have an important and complex relationship with stuff.

But when I visited his website, what I saw in his intuitive and moving works of art is a certain child-like innocence, and even naturalness about our interaction with stuff and maybe I should value that a little more, you know, not throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, tools, mere objects, were the key to the survival of our species, and babies becoming attached to a stuffed animal or blanket is a necessary part of their healthy emotional development. Tim Kasser explained to me that kids growing up with a sense of insecurity, poverty, or insecure psychological attachments will cling to things more.

I had seen our obsession with things to be unnatural and unfulfilling, but Tim’s words, like Brendan’s paintings, made me think about how ingrained it is in our psyches as human beings.

Our Relationship with Stuff has been Exploited

That said, this innocent desire we have has been exploited. Our capitalism is paternalistic in that we are so far removed from the source of our stuff, like who makes it and where do the materials come from and end up. Big Daddy is taking care of everything for us, we don’t have to worry our pretty heads about the details.

And what is hidden from our view is that those in charge are making and peddling stuff in a way that has made stuff more important than people, and people and the planet are suffering, truly suffering because of it. And one day that suffering will come home to roost – indeed, maybe as we all toil away in the pursuit of stuff and get distracted from the point of life and Christmas in the process, maybe it already has.

Each time I watch The Story of Stuff it reinvigorates me to not give up. I am outgunned but I know that what I do matters, and what you do matters, and anything I do to stay conscious, look at the truth, and make greener buying choices, helps. I don’t have a quick and easy list of things you can do but I think if you watch the video you will find your own way.

Have you experienced this battle with stuff, or is it just me? How do you deal with the pressure to consume? What do you do with excess and broken stuff? Have you triumphed over the time question, or do you feel like stuff creates a time sink? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

©Lisa C. DeLuca, 2013 all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web for any purpose or in print for business use without permission from the author. This article was originally published on the web December 6, 2012. Please contact the author with your reprint request.

You might also enjoy: No-Wrap, No-Waste, Somewhat Intimate, Non-Materialistic, Happiness Trio, Best-Loved Christmas Gifts.

One Response to “Coming to Terms with the Problem of Stuff”

  1. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel they have too much stuff. We have made a more concerted effort to think before we buy, so we find ourselves with less to get rid of. Although electronics are a problem, since they tend to break or become outdated faster than we’d like.

    As for disposing of the outlived-their-usefulness items, we look to find a person, family, school or other “place” we can give them to, and if not, make an effort to recycle where possible before we are forced to simply throw anything out. it does usually feel good to purge, though.

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