My wife and I had been engaged for about five months when we embarked on that infamous rite of passage that so many betrothed couples embark upon: registering for wedding gifts. The idea is simple, two people are coming together as one, they each have their own stuff. The logic that proceeds is that their stuff, individually, is not adequate to be their stuff collectively. It does not match, it might not be complete and in many cases, it does not meet the "standard" of a married couple. So, we started registering for our stuff. Towels, bathmats, shower curtains, flatware, dishes, cookware, utensils, decorative items like vases, tablecloths, candlestick holders, items to fill the nooks and crannies of the shelves and spaces we will certainly have in our home together. We register for things like throw pillows and China, things we will rarely if ever use but that is what is expected because that is what you do.
It has been almost 17 years since we were these two kids trying to decide, with a list in one hand and a registry scanner in the other. (btw the woman at Bed Bath and Beyond condescendingly told me I was allowed to hold the registry scanner and scan the things my fiancé approved of, this did not go well and let to a rather large argument perpetuated by me and my emasculated ego which led to me standing alone in the parking lot of Bed Bath and Beyond hoping my fiancé would circle back from the parking lot exit and pick up her now remorseful and sheepishly embarrassed soon to be husband, but that is for another post...) And thus began our collective journey, obsession, disorder, rock bottom, and recovery relationship with stuff.
It is the thing of dreams, the American dream.
From an early age, each of us is told that things, possessions, materials, items, wealth and stuff define who we are. Whether it is our social status, our sports loyalty, our religious affiliation, or just simply our style. The things we surround ourselves with are the things signal to the outside world who we are and more importantly who we want them to see.
Fast forward about 15 years, 5 moves, three kids and 6 pets later. The five of us are sitting on our couch one lazy Saturday afternoon. We are looking through Netflix for something to watch and a new documentary shows up that I had been interested in. It was called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. We selected it from the queue and for the next 78 minutes, no one said a word. We all just took it in, like a deep breath, we let it fill our bodies and our minds. It was almost like an alternate reality, one that seemed more real and authentic than anything we had encountered in quite some time. The documentary finished, the credits rolled and we just sat there, silent. When the credits had finished, without a word each of us stood up went to different areas of the house and just began making piles. That afternoon we took around 12 bags of stuff to the local Goodwill store. Something snapped, we saw something we could never unsee. Not the documentary but the reality of our lives and many others just like us: We had literally bought an idea, a way of life that was leaving us bankrupt, anxious, lacking and completely unsatisfied.
Over the course of the next two years, we would purge every 3 or 4 months. Each time widdling down our Everest of possessions down little by little. each time we finished, we felt good, better than before and thinking we were getting there and then a few months later we realized just how far away we really were. One astonishing fact that Joshua Fields Millburn, one of The Minimalists, likes to quote is that the average American household has over 300,000 items in it.
At first, it was about purging in a pretty indiscriminate manner. We were basically getting rid of junk, trash, unused items. Then it because a deeper practice, we had moved beyond the trash and unused items and were getting into some things that we had some attachment to, some items that carried a level of, even if only a little, sentimentality. It became a little more difficult. At this point we had to make a conscious effort, we had moved from decluttering and were about to journey into a second stage of actually moving towards a more minimalist mindset in regards to our possessions. Surprise, surprise, we decided to continue on.
In the past year, we have trodden even deeper into this new reality, which was becoming more and more real by the day. We have immersed ourselves in books, podcasts, and lectures about minimalism, a more simple life and for the purposes of this blog a Good Life. In the past 2 years, we have hauled out and given away at least 60 trash bags full of our stuff. (Now at this point some of our are judging us, "how in the world could you have that much stuff?" "How big is your house?" "Are you hoarders?" When we moved back to Birmingham from Atlanta we intentionally decided to move into a smaller house 1,100 sqft. and at no point did it ever feel packed, overwhelming or really even cluttered.)
Here is what I know at this point in our journey:
We have a more of a clarity about our stuff, how we consume and what we need than ever before.
- We are not minimalists, we try, aspire and sometimes even come close but we are still very much on this journey.
- Our kids love it. We think they were and are still young enough that they had not been convinced that their identity comes from an external commodity. We do this as a family.
- We still have a way to go, not a long way to go but still a way.
- Minimalism is a gateway drug into all sorts of other self-reflective practices, inventories of your life, mindset shifts etc.
- Minimalism is not just about stuff. It is about the way we see ourselves and our world. It is about our worth and where that worth is derived from.
- Life is clearer, I feel like I breath easier and the way I see stuff has changed dramatically.
The things that we work so hard to own, to possess, and to consume end up owning, possessing and consuming us. When my family and I watched the documentary there was a spark of connectivity that flickered within us. You might be feeling the same thing, if so do not ignore it, feed it, follow it and give it space to grow. I promise you there is a better life waiting for you underneath all of that stuff.