A Problem of Privilege

14 November 2011

The need for trimming down the unnecessary possessions in life is a problem of privilege. The notion that one can, and more importantly has the opportunity to, accumulate too much stuff is only really possible in a consumerist society. But, not everyone within such a society has to hold the same values and goals.

I’m not anti-consumerist; I believe strongly in personal responsibility and choice (if you want to fill your basement and garage with so much stuff you can’t use them for their intended purposes, you should be allowed to, but should also own up to the consequences of those choices). I am however making choices for myself that will necessitate a long term change in attitude.

One of the biggest advantages I have is the move toward digital media for my music, books, and movies. I’m trying to avoid just trading shelf space for bits, on the other hand; there are still limits to how many things are really needed, even digitally. In an afternoon I can download more public domain ebooks than I could read in five lifetimes… so I choose not to do it. The same of course applies to music and movies; digitized hoarding is still hoarding.

The more I get rid of, the easier it becomes. This is most apparent with books: for the longest time, I’ve been one of those people whose bookshelves overflow with books on a variety of the subject which interest me. A few years ago, I strayed into acquiring books I wanted to read, but never actually got around to, and so a well-stocked bookcase turned into a needlessly cluttered bookcase taunting me for having more books than time. This process of shedding has helped with focusing on what books I truly need to own physical copies of versus borrowing or digitizing.

I spend a lot of time around a 2.5 year old, and observing her approach to ‘owning’ things has been fairly illuminating. Pretty much anything she has ever used, she considers to be to hers, and when her 4 year old sister (or anyone else) dares to touch something that has deemed ‘hers’ she is not at all shy about letting you know it. Part of her way of defining her presence in the world is through her possessions.

So, a key element to dealing with the emotions of letting go of Things is divorcing one’s self image from its material aspects. I am no less a music lover because I gave away most of my CDs, I’m no less a successful person because I downsized my living space. In fact, I have more time to do the things that really make me who I am because I have fewer possessions to distract or to clutter my space (and much less guilt about needing to tidy up a bit, too!).