I sometimes envy people who travel the world with everything they own slung over their shoulders in a backpack. How carefree it must be to only keep up with whatever is packed in that modest canvas bag. While I don’t consider myself someone who craves material possessions, I’m often taken aback when I look around me to see an overwhelming amount of stuff collected through the years.
It’s not the big ticket material possessions that weigh on me. I kept my previous vehicle twelve years before getting a replacement. My wife’s car is well over a decade old and still running strong. We’ve lived in the same house—the only one we’ve ever owned—for eighteen years. But the small stuff seems out of control. We’ve given mounds of possessions to charity over many years, but I’m hard-pressed to tell it.
What would I save in a fire given my family and pets were safe? Truth is, not much. Family photos and important files are synced to the cloud, so no worries there. I would grab the 140-year old journal my great, great, great grandfather kept, 254 pages of handwritten prose and beautiful color sketches of his multi-year adventure exploring the pacific northwest. I’d also save my great, great grandmother’s painting of an ancient, maritime schooner that’s framed within a ship’s wheel. If I still had time, I’d snatch a soon-to-be published manuscript a good friend recently gave me. With those items safe, I struggle to think of anything else. The other items surrounding me use up precious mental energy to decide where to keep them, and even more energy to actually keep them there.
Where does this impulse to accumulate originate? Is the desire hidden in a gene passed down from our ancestors who roamed great distances on foot in pursuit of food? Did they long for the ability to stay in one place where they could keep a few belongings and now that tendency is embedded in many of us? Worthy desires, no doubt, but it seems too many of us are on the other extreme.
When I’m away from my house, I rarely think about my possessions. I don’t wonder how my flat screen TV is doing during my day. When at work, my mind doesn’t drift to the knickknacks that line my bookshelves or the closets stuffed with clothes or the teetering boxes piled high in the attic. I can’t even tell you what’s in most of them.
But I do think about the people who mean something to me. During my day I think about family members and close friends and wonder how they are. I think about people I haven’t seen in years and hope life is treating them well. Memories spark and I’ll smile thinking about the college roommate who went streaking through the girls floor in our dorm when he lost a bet. He shocked us all by making a second lap because the girls had cheered him so. Or I’ll think about the time friends and I canoed down the Green River in Utah over five days and how, many miles from civilization, in the heart of the desert landscape, a stranger walked into one of our campsites wearing a dress shirt and tie.
These memories, experiences, and the friendships I've made, lift me up. But many of the possessions I've paid good money for, weigh me down. It’s telling that all the items I would save from a fire are belongings I didn’t purchase.
There’s so much in my house I’m willing to trade for pennies-on-the-dollar at the neighborhood yard sale, or for the serenity of handing it over to the polite guy in the weekend Good Will truck down the road. But I would never trade those friends, family and memories for anything. Life is not meant for accumulating unnecessary material possessions. It’s meant for accumulating rewarding relationships, meaningful experiences and treasured memories. Which ones fill your world right now?