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Buying, Owning, Keeping—Less

Posted By Stephanie‎ Lind On 05.27.2011 @ 7:43 PM In General | Comments Disabled

New Yorkers have a reputation of being materialistic. And this just really isn’t fair. I can’t think of any group of Americans who have less stuff than New Yorkers.

My sister and I both currently have two children. My husband and two girls (one of whom has special needs) share a living space and “kitchen wall” with the other people we live with, and fit our summer and winter wardrobes, medical equipment, snowboarding equipment, car seats, toys, a playpen, and a sizeable library into an 11 by 17 room. The whole room transforms to a seating area for parties because our mattress actually rests on this convertible platform-thing that separates into two couches. And the room is actually quite pleasant to be in. If I were not so modest I might enter it in a Small Spaces Design competition, or something of the sort.

My sister, (who was horrified last year that we were bringing another child into the world because of our ‘space limitations’) rented a three level townhouse in Virginia she couldn’t afford because each boy had to have his own room. They have a play space in the basement, and a dining room that’s separate from the kitchen, that’s separate from the living room, that’s separate from the family room.

For millions of New Yorkers, a dishwasher, laundry unit (in the building—not in your apartment), and real closet space are considered luxuries not standard amenities. And, I am not the only person who would look at my sister’s master bedroom closet and think that I could turn it into a shabby chic office, a quaint infant’s nursery, or both. Most people, for most of history, have lived more like how my family lives than how my sister’s family lives; they’ve lived from relational rather than material priorities. The truth is, when you don’t have the space to store a lot of stuff, you realize how little stuff (and space) you actually need. And once you don’t have a lot of stuff, it becomes obvious how much better your life is without it.

Material possessions are a leading cause of strain on American families today. The effects reach much farther than the much talked about psychological strain caused by debt and clutter. Most of us are profoundly out of touch with how our material possessions drain our vitality, time, and resources. If we were to take a historical perspective, it’d be obvious that most Americans live on estates. And the obvious problem with that is, that unlike most historical estates, most Americans do not have servants. It seems to me that people should either limit their material possessions to an amount that they can reasonably maintain, store, care for, up-keep, and organize, or they should acquire servants. Yes, I’m serious.

We spend our weeks earning money to buy stuff, and our weekends acquiring, cleaning, organizing, and maintaining stuff. And how many arguments in families have to do with our material things? Most of the frustrations in my family usually sound like this: “Put your socks {toys, books, dishes} away!” “Have you seen my ______?” “Why did you buy another _____ {usually for me its another pair of shoes}?” “When are you going to fix the ______?”

Perhaps I belabor the point. What is for certain is that a severely disproportionate amount of resources are spent on material pursuits: we sacrifice our imagination, our time, our emotional and relational energy, our peace, our creativity.

The opportunity costs are staggering. We neglect and marginalize the life of the mind, our spirituality, our families, our community involvement, and the millions of ways we could be creative and express identity apart from material acquisition. Not even when we have abundance does our life consist of our possessions. And yet we continue to buy and consume and hoard. Because, of course, we can never have enough of what we really don’t want. Perhaps it’s time more of us took a metaphysical free-fall into asceticism and started buying, owning, keeping—less.

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