Thoughts on our attachment to things

Owning a lot of things makes travelling and moving difficult. I have experienced this on a first-hand basis recently.  Abundance of belongings make us immobile and “heavy”. But, letting go of our excess of things is difficult. It feels wrong to just throw away things that are still functional, even if they burden us and tie us down. And giving things away is not all that easy; no-one really wants extra stuff that they haven’t selected themselves – well, not unless it is something really special.
The things that we own, even if they are unimportant to us, are somehow a part of us.

A couple of months before our departure for Indonesia, I packed our cargo bike with a bunch of stuff and attended a flea market in Copenhagen; trying to get rid of glasses, plates, toys, clothes etc. that we couldn’t bring and didn’t want to store (because these things felt insignificant and unimportant to us). I sold a few things for next to nothing; even though the things I had brought were nice, pretty and functional they seemed valueless among the piles of unimportant stuff at the market. At the end of the market day I ended up trying to give away most of the many items I hadn’t managed to sell. But no-one wanted them – even when they were free of charge! It was a strange experience.

How can things go from being desirable to being worthless without them being broken or malfunctioning? How is a value-decrease of that kind possible?

Most of us spend a significant amount of money and time accumulating stuff. We hoard and store tons of things that we never use, and that we forget we even have. Why? Does it make us feel safe or at home in the world? Do things have an anchoring quality that keep us grounded?
The things we use regularly make up just a small percentage of the things we own. Our favourite clothes, our favourite cups and glasses, our favourite lamp and chair, our favourite books, photos, paintings… The things that please us and nourish us aesthetically and functionally are only a small part of our belongings.
Narrowing down our assets to only our favourite things would make perfect sense. But somehow the thought of doing so is anxiety provoking. What if we, someday, were missing that book or that bowl we got rid of? What if we one day felt like wearing that pink 80’s sweatshirt that we no longer have? Then what…? Well, honestly, that day will probably never come.

Cowboy boot collection (I took this photo last summer in Red Lodge, Montana)

An argument in relation to our inclination to build up an arsenal of useless things could concern our human nature or psychology and indicate that hoarding behaviour is universally human. But I don’t agree with that argument. I feel convinced that our tendency to stockpile insignificant belongings or to collect objects is cultural, rather than universal. And if something is cultural it means that it can be “unlearned”. Think about Berber nomads of the dessert – or the new digital nomads for that matter. Their lifestyles are per definition build up around mobility and hence the lightness of owning few, but significant (functional and aesthetically pleasing) objects. And when it comes to digital nomads, they are often previous “modern hoarders”.

I will return to the difference between insignificant and significant things, and the qualities of the latter, in my forthcoming post.

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