I recently arrived at the end of two relentlessly and unexpectedly chaotic years. It was all I could do to keep my head above water. I coped by hurriedly chucking things into cupboards any which way, abandoning cleaning routines for a lick and a promise, stacking files on surfaces (floor included) instead of putting them away—you get the picture.
Finally I gained some breathing space and have spent the past couple months bringing order out of the chaos. As often happens, what’s going on in my life prompts me to think about the bigger cultural context. Consequently, I find myself considering our relationship to “things” in a consumer culture.
This experience has reminded me that acquiring and maintaining possessions isn’t easy, and that harbouring excess becomes burdensome. This is ironic, since most of us accumulate material goods to make our lives easier and more satisfying. At least, that’s the cultural story. The way to evaluate the truth of that story is to check and see if it holds up. Are your possessions making life easier, simpler, and more satisfying? Or is it all too much?
What is “too much?” It’s an individual determination, so I can’t say what is too much for you—that’s your job. But I can suggest ways to assess your situation. Start by thinking about the physical management of your things. Are they easy to contain or have you had to rent a storage unit to hold the excess? Have you bought a multitude of plastic bins in an attempt to keep things orderly. Are your cars parked outside the garage because it is piled to the rafters with “stuff and junk,” as my mom used to call it? Does your house or apartment feel too crowded, even though there are only two people living in it? Are you thinking about buying a portable clothing rack to accommodate the overflow that refuses to be stuffed into your closet? Do you have mystery boxes, unopened since your last move?
None of this makes you a bad person, but it does suggest that your things have gotten out of hand. Chances are they are running your life rather than contributing to it. For one thing, there are financial implications when we have too much—storage rental fees, extra costs for insuring our belongings, higher monthly payments for larger living quarters, money sunk into products that are rarely (if ever) used, money paid for duplicate items when you can’t find the originals amidst the clutter. Spending to maintain an excess of possessions drains away money that might be better used to create the life you really want.
Excess belongings drain more than money; they deplete mental energy. Looking after our things, and earning the money to acquire and support them, siphons off a lot of vitality that might be used for other life activities (such as having fun with family or friends).
Furthermore, when our surroundings are in a muddle, it requires a lot of energy to keep from also being in a mental muddle. Disorder and confusion around us distract our mind from the focus we would like to have. As a result, mental clutter that is fuelled by physical mess makes us inefficient and leads to poor decisions.
Worse yet, we may find ourselves feeling buyer’s remorse—unsatisfied in spite of having so much. That’s no fun, especially for those who followed the cultural story and did what they thought they should to be successful and happy.
So how much is too much? How can you decide? Here’s what I’m thinking…
Too much for me is anything I cannot care for exquisitely. That would include a lot of what was shoved willy-nilly into my storage room these past two years. The storage room is my last “order-out-of-chaos” challenge. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s so hard to decide what to keep and what not to. But I think this new filter is going to work. At least that’s the theory! For certain, it will challenge me to come to grips with just what it means to take “exquisite” care. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’m interested in your observations about excess and chaos because I need all the help I can get for thinking this through.