The Weight of Things

Cindy and I are in the process of moving. This is the time when I see and regret everything I have accumulated. This is when I know, without a doubt, that of all the aspects of life which suck our life from us day by day, things are among the worst.

Look around at all you own: how much of it is disposable? I mean truly disposable. Most of the furniture probably is. And the clothes. Most of the books too – that’s what library cards are for. Computers dispose of themselves in a few years. Music? Videos? Software? Each is only one copy among millions, no feature makes it special.

I think perhaps the greatest luxury of wealth would be freedom from things. With money, so much in this world is replaceable; if something is not being used it is not needed. And yet our lives revolve around acquiring more. Every television, every book and video, every new shirt and pair of shoes ties us down. We need to work harder to win it. We need a bigger house to store it. We need time to maintain it, sort through it, and finally discard it. Things are one of the great enemies of freedom.

We know this. Our mythology celebrates it, from the western cowboy to the freedom of youth. Do you remember the joy of leaving for a trip on the spur of the moment with only the pack on your back, knowing that your diary, a toothbrush, some money and a clean pair of underwear are all that you need? It is exhilarating to be without the burden of stuff.

The problem is attachment. We are attached to people, places, and times. But these are dynamic, ever-changing. Things stick: stuff is loyal. We grow attached to things. We bind memories to them, and so we keep the things to keep the memories. This web of things separates us more and more from the world. We risk spending more time with and for the stuff and the old memories than we do making new ones. When we began, our lives were our own and things followed our script. Over time, we instead become the actors who play out the life of the stuff.

And yet… I still keep that soap that reminds me of Switzerland. I keep the books I love, though I may never reread them. I cannot give up the games that gave me joy in my youth. Perhaps I fear for the future: I cling to old memories for fear new ones will never compare. If I cling too hard, they may not. Perhaps it is a fear of death; I imagine on my deathbed thinking back on my life and I hope for memories and contentment. Perhaps it is the cold rationality that says save this now and you may save money later. Maybe I will, but stuff costs more than money.

So I fight the stuff. Once, moving back from Switzerland to Canada, I succeeded. I gave away my furniture, my television, my clothes, my books and my dishes. I discarded all but the most essential papers. Even photographs went in the trash – I only saved the negatives. I left with a suitcase, a hockey bag, and a backpack. I remember the feeling the day the Brockenhaus driver arrived to strip the furniture from my empty flat, and it was a moment of great sadness. Not for the things, but because I knew then that I had passed the tipping point, there was no going back. I miss Switzerland, but I don’t miss the stuff.