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As the recently unladen moving truck sputtered down the quiet street in our new neighbourhood, my wife and I gazed in awe upon the immense amount of cardboard-encased property that had just been disgorged into our new home. How did two people of relatively limited means manage to accumulate so much stuff?
We were planning to use the move as an excuse to get rid of as many unneeded possessions as possible. I was being ruthless, but the reality of the situation is, my wife and I require a decent amount of stuff to live our somewhat modest lives at the comfort-level with which we’re familiar.
This is certainly not an uncommon phenomenon in modern society. Despite the ululating manner in which we’re often portrayed in well-meaning liberal think pieces, most people’s regular consumption is not indiscriminate.
Usually, we purchase products because they serve a definite purpose. You own a house, it comes with a lawn. That lawn needs mowing, so you buy a lawnmower. The lawnmower requires upkeep, so you buy some tools. The tools need to go someplace, so you buy a toolbox.
You put the tools in the toolbox and then you put the toolbox in a pre-fab shed along with the lawn mower, a sprinkler, some hoses, a big bag of fertilizer, a fertilizer push spreader and about a million other things that you bought one-by-one because they solved specific problems at specific moments over the course of the past six months.
But, while it’s difficult to untangle ourselves from all the things that supposedly make our lives easier, such conspicuous property ownership can definitely feel like a burden.
Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL commander, lifestyle coach and bestselling author of The Unbeatable Mind, cautions against allowing material objects to become too important in your life.
“Physical stuff bogs you down,” he says. “It drains you of energy, ultimately, because you have to tend to it. It takes up mental space.”
If you’ve ever heard of a psychological hypothesis called the “endowment effect,” then you probably have a rough idea of just how right he is. This is the natural human tendency to ascribe greater value to items that you feel you own.
“Simplicity is power,” says Divine, who explains that he came by this philosophy of minimalist living while essentially living out of a rucksack during his time as one of our country’s elite warriors. “You have more energy and more clarity when you’re focusing on a narrower range of things.”
Divine, an MBA graduate of New York University’s Stern School of Business, recalled to me an unsettling occasion when he spent some time with a billionaire.
“This guy’s life was so complicated,” Divine says. “It just made my stomach turn to think about living his life. He had a 40 person staff just to run his household. He was flying all over the place in jets, partying in Las Vegas while his family was back home.”
While such an experience might make other business-minded entrepreneurs seethe with jealousy, for Divine, it served only to further solidify his belief that material consumption is a distraction from true happiness and success.
“It’s not about the money, it’s about how you decide to live your life day by day.”
And Divine is not alone in this philosophy. A surprising number of people have been taking this doctrine to its reasonable conclusion in recent years, opting against the comforts and trappings of home-living in an effort to remain unencumbered and independent.
And lest you assume that I mean that they’re eschewing home-ownership, allow me to clarify: they are eschewing homes.
I’m not talking about victims of our incessantly lethargic economy, nor free-spirit libertarians seeking asylum from “the grid.” I’m talking about gainfully employed middle class, or upper middle class, people who have decided that they just do not want to deal with the obligations that come with four walls and a ceiling and have instead moved themselves into their cars.
Likely the most prominent example of this lifestyle choice is 22-year-old Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris who has become as well known for his choice to spend the off season living in a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia van, nicknamed “Shaggy,” as he has for his 95 mph fastball.
This is a baseball player with a huge future and a $2 million signing bonus in the bank. “I’m actually more comfortable being kind of poor,” Norris told ESPN’s Eli Saslow in a recent interview, which is presumably why he opts to live off the $800 his high-end financial advisors deposit into his checking account every month.
Unconventional as it may be, it’s a way of living that works for him, and for others like him.
But surely, there must be some way to walk the middle path between toxic consumption and voluntary pauperhood. Would my wife and I find any way to exist in peaceful contentment without selling everything and moving into our Mazda 3?
“One word: non-attachment,” Divine suggests.
Divine counsels his clients to start thinking of their possessions only as utilitarian tools, stripping away the sense of ownership or sentimental value.
“The more spartan you get with your thinking,” he says —meaning, the more indifference you show towards luxury —“the less likely you are to actually think or care about any of that stuff, positively or negatively.”
When your emotions are tied up in your possessions, you may find that they’re easier to get rid of, especially when you notice that those “tools” aren’t actually providing you with any tangible benefit.
Easier said than done, right? It’s proven especially difficult for my wife and I. Our new house is considerably bigger than our old one, which means we’ve already begun the process of collecting more things to place into it.
As we roll our cart through the aisles of our Target, eyeing end tables and oscillating fans, I try my best to keep an air of detachment. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But here’s a new trick we’ve been trying. When we see something in the store that we think we need, we try to do without it for a week. Do we notice its absence? Does our life start to unravel without it?
If you don’t have the lawn mower, eventually you notice that your back yard has turned into a jungle. So you go out and get one.
But what about that oversized wall clock that’d look so cool and arty hanging in our bedroom?
Or the accent chair I thought would be the perfect addition to the five other chairs we already have in the living room?
Or the new MacBook Air, which is essential for a writer, right? Sure, I already have both a laptop and a desktop. But the Air is so light and breezy. Perfect for carrying to that coffee shop that I’m eventually going to get around to going to. Just think how much writing I’d get done if I had that!
I didn’t buy any of it. I gave myself a week. As it turns out, there are plenty of places to sit in our living room, I have other ways of finding out what time it is, and I finished this story, and many other stories, without a new laptop.
Try it yourself. The next time you want to buy something, take a week and see if you notice not having it. You might be amazed at how many things you’ll realize you don’t actually need once you try living without them.
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