‘To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.’ – Lao Tse
As teenagers, my friends and I loved asking people their three favourite animals and why they liked them. So, let’s say I said: (1) a dog, because it’s faithful, (2) a cat, because it’s self-sufficient, and (3) a bear because it eats honey, then it would translate as: I see myself as being faithful, other people see me as being self-sufficient, and I want to be someone who eats honey. You get the picture.
Anyway, we found this hilarious because it was always eerily correct. Like the time a fashion model friend of ours said, ‘A camel – because it just sits around doing nothing.’
I still remember what I’d chosen for my second animal – a wild horse – because ‘it was free’. Everyone said it was uncanny, because that was how everyone saw me: as being free.
And while I like to think I’ve managed to dodge a fair number of society’s rules for women and have always tried to live by my own moral compass, I don’t know if I’ve felt really free.
That’s because I connect ‘freedom’ with ‘virtually no Stuff’.
I think we live by the script we have written for ourselves and I believe we strive towards a fantasy that we have similarly concocted. And my fantasy has always been this: I am travelling around the world by train. I have a small leather case containing the following – a pair of jeans and some t-shirts; a week’s worth of undergarments; a small washbag holding toiletries; a stack of my favourite books; a blank notebook with pencil; a camera and my Walkman (yes, this fantasy originated in the 1980s).
Over the years, the last four items have been replaced with: a laptop, a Kindle and an iPod.
The jeans and t-shirts have been replaced with: three black dresses.
As you can see, I give this fantasy real weight and genuine consideration. All the time.
I did fulfil a version of this fantasy when, at age 20, I travelled with a backpack on a Eurorail pass for a month. And I did live out of one suitcase for 10 years until I settled in London just over a decade ago. But as I was still storing things with my family in the US and Bangladesh, what I carried with me were not my only possessions. And so the fantasy persists.
This is because I am absolutely fascinated by our relationship with Stuff.
The way we believe we ‘need’ so many things. This has become truly universal, no longer associated only with Western consumerism. My mother, when moving from her parents’ home to go away to college in another town at age 18, carried with her all her worldly possessions in one small case. She will soon be moving home again, and this time it will take an army of professional movers to shift a few streets down.
I am fascinated by how we often imbue meaning to physical Stuff when it’s the experience we actually want to stay connected with. A book is a glued bunch of paper with words on it. We become attached to the feeling we get when we read a story we love. Yet we often pile on the affection to the carrier of those ideas and feelings.
And I am truly fascinated by how we hide behind our Stuff. So many of us are driven by mindless consumption. We eat too much, drink too much, work too much, and definitely buy too much. We do these beyond our needs and often even beyond our desires. It has become compulsive.
I think we do this because it distracts us from the hole we have in our lives. If we think too long or too hard about this hole, then it will terrify us. So we fight it by ignoring it, by focusing on there instead of here. Perhaps even by creating other problems (one of getting high or gambling or whatever) so that we focus on that rather than facing what truly makes us ache: the hole.
What is this hole? I think it’s loneliness.
Instead of filling the hole with love – the only way we would be truly satiated – we stuff it with the latest gizmos, overstuffed wardrobes, and just More, More, More.
And so my fantasy of moving through this world with few possessions (and, with it, a lightness of heart) persists. To feel I am not tethered to my past or my future, but purely to the present. To not ‘need’ lots of random things except those that are carefully considered and deeply appreciated. To accumulate experiences, which become beautiful, fun memories I carry instead of a pile of Stuff. And, most of all, to not hide from myself, and to know to be surrounded by love.
And so I add the most important element to my fantasy: some darling companions for an exchange of laughter and ideas. With all this abundance, I believe I will feel truly free.
‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.’ – Albert Einstein
Related Recommendations in books:
Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston
The original book on decluttering, and still the best. I have given many copies of this to friends. There isn’t much about feng shui in here, you’ll either be relieved or annoyed to know.
Clutter Busting by Brooks Palmer
A powerful book that places importance on the person, instead of the things they own.