Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Too Much Stuff

I promised in my last post that I would not merely rant against hoarding, and so here is where I delve into the dilemmas we all face about possessions, things, stuff. It’s a two-part issue. There are many decisions we make when we acquire things, and many other decisions we make when we choose to keep things. Even no decision at all is a decision.

First let’s talk about acquiring possessions. Acquiring new possessions may be the biggest threat we face, yet it is behavior that our culture pushes on us. Our economy runs on the consumer model. Since at least the end of World War II, manufacturers have deliberately created objects that are not meant to last a lifetime. This is called planned obsolescence: the parts are manufactured to fail. When companies progressed to using mostly plastic parts, they converted to parts that barely function at all, that break easily and cannot be repaired even with Crazy Glue. In the past, there were many repair shops in our country. Now there are very few, because it is cheaper to buy a brand new television than to have one repaired. To push us to make the transition from keeping objects to tossing them in favor of brand new ones, manufacturers constantly add upgrades; each new television has some new feature that supposedly makes it superior to the old one. Advertising is relentless, and it has crept into every corner of our world. It’s no wonder that after being exposed to hundreds of messages telling us to buy something new, we want to.

“New” is constantly touted as the optimum of our culture. Fashions in clothing have always been the ultimate in planned obsolescence; there is a new fashion every season of the year. Clothing designers collude to use the same colors and fabrics at the same time, and to make them as different as possible from what came before. The effect is to make whatever you own and wear now look “so last year.” Women and men who get caught up in this are forced by their learned hypersensitivity to newness to constantly update their wardrobes.

Of course personal issues enter into this acquiring spiral. We want to be perceived as on the cutting edge of technology, not old-fashioned. We want to be seen as fashionable, not dowdy. Not buying new means being out of step with the rest of our culture. Everybody else has a cell phone, so why don’t you? Elderly people are the only cohort that consistently opts out of this frenzy. No computers, cell phones, or even telephone answering machine technology for them. There are exceptions, but since most elderly people also are living on limited incomes with little or no hope of increase, they are wise not to be wrapped up in ceaseless acquisition. The truth is they can’t afford it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us do have laptops and cell phones, but what about that old desktop computer, and that old pager? They’re sitting somewhere in our homes, usually gathering dust. Along with the broken televisions and last year’s clothing. But do we get rid of them? No. They still work, or they could be fixed, or they still fit or…something.

That’s part two of the hoarding problem. As much as we are victims of advertising hype and the peer pressure in our culture that pushes us to keep acquiring new possessions, there’s a part of our brain that knows arbitrarily abandoning old possessions is wrong and unnatural. That blouse is perfectly good, and it cost half a day’s pay; why throw it out because something else is fashionable this year? There’s nothing wrong with that television that a halfway competent mechanic couldn’t fix. And surely there’s some reason to keep that old pager, which still works, even though nobody sends pages anymore? These are reasonable arguments. Unfortunately, the new possessions crowd out the old. That’s because there’s a gap between our good intentions and our actions. We’re busy. We throw the old pager in a drawer and forget it rather than decide what to do with it next.

We also keep possessions because of sentiment. Mothers typically keep some souvenirs from their children’s babyhood. Maybe a rattle or tiny booties or even a few toys in anticipation of becoming a grandparent. Where mothers begin to cross the line is when they keep every toy the child had from infancy on, and every piece of crayon artwork and every spelling homework paper, and so on. (Turning these items into endless scrapbooks is just moving the clutter from one shelf to another, unless 99% of the collected items are tossed in the process.)

The clutter problem starts with our natural outrage at the waste implied in tossing out something that still might have some value. That television was fine until the moment it stopped working. It originally cost $400. We want it to be fixed, but that is not our reality today. The pager is outdated technology; it’s hopeless, but it still works. How frustrating is that? What about the stuffed animal collection that was so cute when the baby was three years old? The baby is a strapping teenager now and those toys could make some little child happy, but can we bear to part with them?

If we do not throw out stuff, move it along, we run the risk of letting the mere trappings of our lives turn into piled-up trash, or totems. If our rooms contained every item we wore or played with or worked on in or ate from in our entire lives, we wouldn’t be able to move. We must live in the present without being constricted by the past. To do that, we must engage in a constant winnowing process, sending off and throwing out items that no longer are useful to us. Even when we wish they still were. Sorry about that, old faithful television.

In most homes, there are some items that need to be chucked, but we just haven’t gotten around to dealing with them yet. In the home of a clutterer/hoarder, the total number of these items keeps increasing, often exponentially and with no relation to rational thinking. Hoarders not only keep everything from the past, imbuing every item with sentimental totemic value, but they also keep bringing in new possessions. This kind of acquiring does not seem to be a response to the overmarketing of Americans. It’s related to a sense of not having enough. Hoarders frequently report feeling safer and more comfortable with all their excess possessions packed around them. They literally use physical objects to protect them from the world. Some trash pick, but the majority simply overbuy. Hundreds of garments, hundreds of food items, hundreds of containers in which they imagine they will one day sort their excess possessions.

How do we keep from becoming clutterer/hoarders? How do we avoid falling ill with their disease? We already know that the entire force of our culture is pressing us to keep acquiring. The logical response is two pronged: one, we need to identify our true desires so we can acquire what we most want in life, not what ads tell us we should want; and two, we need to be diligent in divesting ourselves of any excess we have.

More in my next post.

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