Monday, December 20, 2010

In Defense of Having Stuff

Tolkien's Smaug
  Let me start by saying that I am a fan of the concept of living more simply and with "less" -- of placing peace of the mind above desires for material things that we perceive as "better" than what we already have or for life as we wish we could have it. But, I think we need to carefully keep perspective: possessions are not all bad.

Wanting things just to have them leads to both literal and philosophical clutter but material things can bring us happiness. We shouldn't let the very important and wise idea of not allowing possessions become an albatross around our necks turn into a fear of wanting and taking pleasure in the material things we love.

In an excellent article of good advice, called "Lessons from Less," on Zenhabits, guest contributor Courtney Carver points out some solid notions of simplifying the act of existing in an over-complicated world whose complication is often of our own creation. I agree with most of her ideas. But I wanted to comment on one part of her article. In regards to one area of living with less, she says:
I got rid of my stuff. While I always felt compelled to put something on an empty surface, I have come to love an empty space. It takes living without it to realize how clutter affects your life and takes away from your freedom and creativity. I am reminded of that every time I walk into my kitchen and instead of seeing a cluttered counter, I see sunlight streaming in from the kitchen window. I am still letting go of my stuff and feel lighter everyday.
There is sold reasoning here and the poetic -- yet essential -- notion that we should take pleasure from natural beauty and not be distracted by cluttered artificials is not something I would argue against. What I would fear is that readers might take this reasoning too far.

Clutter can be oppressive, no question. Yet, in the proper places, I find it inspiring. My music studio, in a small bedroom in my house, is filled with instruments and equipment and the walls are covered in pictures that inspire me, from movie posters to the advertisements for plays I have worked on to photos of my family. In this room, the clutter feels, to me, like a warm hug. Rather than limiting my creativity, it fosters it. Rather than making me feel burdened, it makes me feel free to imagine.

As a person, though, my human complexity leads me to seek the kind of clutter-free life Courtney mentions -- to want to get the hell out of the clutter. That is when I need the outdoors or the more open environment of my living room (though it is, to my nerdish delight, lined with bookshelves). 
Me and my sufficient guitar

Having material things and even desiring material things is not so bad, so long as those things are nourishing to the soul. I don't see the spiritual value of certain common material desires like five-hundred dollar pocketbooks, thousand dollar shoes or hundred-thousand dollar cars, but if I could afford a twenty-foot Bosendorfer grand piano or a Greg Smallman guitar, I would buy one in a second. Why? Not to simply have them, but because the playing of such fine instruments would nourish my spirit in the way only music can. (My digital grand piano and my two-thousand dollar Giambattista guitar nourish my soul just fine -- but the glorious sound of those other instruments would only augment the pleasure. Still, I don't pine for them, nor will I give up playtime with my kids for extra work-hours to get them.)

I know there are those who would argue that driving a fine machine nourishes their soul. I would not doubt them. Let the real drivers seek expensive cars. I would just question the idea of collecting them and of sacrificing the time to drive them in the interest of raising the money to buy more of them. That seems to me like burden that can't be good for you.

So, I would say: Don't eliminate clutter, if you like material things, but make sure you have a way to escape it in order to let your soul breathe when the time comes. Don't renounce possessions, but don't let the quest for them take away your living time and be sure to choose these possessions because they nourish your spirit, not because you want to be able to say you have them. (It is important to point out: Courtney never said to renounce all possessions -- I just fear that many over-interpret valid ideas like hers . . .)

I read from the Tao Te Ching almost daily. One thing I take from it is the comfort of knowing that there is no one answer -- that the search for the answer of the moment is the answer for that moment. Literal balance can be used as a metaphor for philosophical balance: the world is the ocean, with its tides and waves. We stand on a raft. If we adjust our weight and stance at the right times, we won't fall in and be swallowed up by it. Balance.

Courtney has found her answers and those answers might be the perfect ones for many others, but living in balance requires listening to our own souls, which is easier said than done. What we really need is able to be found within each of us, but people should never think their inner-self is the same as that of anyone else. Don't be like me; don't be like Courtney; don't be like Buddah or Lao Tzu. Be like you.

Have stuff -- lots of stuff if it makes you truly happy. Just be sure you are right about your choices, or material blessings can soon turn into curses. And be prepared for the time when your needs change, because nothing brings pleasure at all times and forever.



  1. In The "Happiness Project," Gretchen Rubin discusses how money can buy happiness. Don't misunderstand; she's very responsible about it all. She points out that "money makes a good servant, bad master;" she cautions against over-spending and warning that instant gratification voids the happiness of anticipation.

    But she talks about buying things for the "right" reasons. She has a list of some specifics, but what it comes down to is things you spend money on should contribute to your growth in some way. Obviously, this will differ from person to person. But her sentiments are similar to yours. There are plenty of good reasons to have and want "stuff."

  2. Mr. Matt,
    fantastic. I've said before balance is key to life. I'm also reminded of a scene from "City Slickers," yes the movie, where the dramatic cowboy said the meaning of life, or happiness in life, I don't remember which, comes down to 1 thing. He didn't say what the one thing was, because it was different for each person. This makes you have to wonder, are fads a good way to fit in, or are they just blocking you from seeing things.
    Since I've already started with movie quotes I'm also reminded of the phrase 'greed is good,' from "Wall Street." Greed, and the desire to attain a better life can be a good thing. However if greed is out of balance in priorities, greed becomes just as blinding as fads can be, causing a desire for more stuff, than enjoying it. The comedian Lewis Black has a great routine about the high powered CEOs that were caught stealing money, I highly suggest you listen to it, but its not for little children's ears. Case in point, this point of view is out there, it's just interesting that people have not listened to this philosophy, opting instead to follow what advertisements say you need.

  3. There's definitely a balance to be struck for sure. I find that I come to "need" things at different times in my life. The "stuff" that I may have put around me ten years ago is not the stuff that makes me happy today. I do not save that stuff. I give it away and seek out new inspiration. I find inspiration in all objects I possess for various reasons. A vase is not a vase. A doll is not just a doll. That's why I'm very selective on what I bring into the house and part of why my husband thinks I'm high-maintenance. For me it's also kind of like feng shui. I see EVERYTHING around me as a picture. Surprise surprise. ;)

  4. good points, all -- Gina, I remember Ray Bradbury had a show on HBO of adaptations of his stories and in the beginning he was in his study,which was filled with junk. I remember him talking about how inspiring it was to him and how every object had a meaning. Leave it to me to use Bradbury as a decorating example . . .