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Tonight our Wednesday evening discussion group got into the tangle of what drives our need for stuff. We narrowed it to physical stuff and generally to those things which are well beyond necessities and those things of natural utility for our daily lives. What need is being met by the possession of meaningless stuff? Why do we buy these things? Are we just puppets of the Madison Avenue ad men and their clever advertising? All fifteen people present admitted to having more non-used things than they would ever find a use for and that they would be better off if much of the stuff was simply gone. One said she recently moved across country and sold and gave away most of what she owned and seemed somewhat surprised but pleased that she was happier now that it was gone.

The stuff problem didn’t seem to pivot on new purchases but on the accumulation of years of items which were not used up, not consumed, but only partially used. The items were still useful and would perform their original function, but their functions were no longer being pursued. The items were put into short-term storage for ready availability, then medium-term storage for easy access and then somehow forgotten and rarely seen. This would not be a serious problem if it went by in a year, but after twenty or fifty years of non-use it becomes absurd to keep these items, and yet – there they are. How long should I keep my collections of Watchtower, Awake!, Christian Science Monitor, Popular Science, Wired and MIT Technology Review? Well, duh ?!?

I like to come away from conversations with a take-home message. It should be something like a change of behavior I should start practicing. One thing I already do to protect myself from the acquisition of too much unwanted stuff is to ask permission of my partner to buy things, and particularly things that are bulky or that cost more than a pittance. Even when shopping at a thrift store I will generally ask permission to buy various things. It just gives me a moment to reflect on whether I am being excessively foolish — I already admit to considerable foolishness — but I do try to avoid excess.

It seems that the core of the problem with stuff is that it lends our lives an artificial meaning and purpose. This is particularly true for sentimental items that are associated with particular people and events, and that is the stuff that is particularly difficult to abandon. That’s because it would be throwing away part of our self, part of our life’s meaning, part of our soul. Our physical things, and mental ones too, are buffers against the challenges to our personal reality.

The question now becomes, how can we filter out those stuffy things which are more of a burden than a help? Perhaps when we encounter one of these obstructing things we could ask ourselves, “How is this thing going to buffer my future life against the problems I will be expecting to encounter?” If this item isn’t clearly helpful to some expected future need, give it to the recycle store. That form of disposal is easier because it isn’t as painful as throwing it into a garbage can. The passing unused stuff on to a thrift store eases the guilt of squandering useful things, and it does free up some physical and emotional space in your life for better use.

“If in doubt, throw it out.”