Monday, 2 January 2017

The Burden of Stuff

On New Year's Eve, my boyfriend and I had one of our accidental, biannual clear-outs. They usually start with an innocuous suggestion of dusting a shelf or tidying some books and end hours later with us stood, frazzled from a series of "no, don't put it there, put it there"-style micro arguments, looking down at bags upon bags of stuff, wondering where it all came from and how it all fitted in our flat.

Original artwork in collage: Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto


This time, we cleared out the living room and ended up with three IKEA bags full of books and 6 further smaller bags of sundries to donate. So extreme was the mass exodus of stuff, it rendered an entire shelving unit redundant.

The fact that we had so much stuff to expel from our flat even though we have regular clear-outs might make it sound like we're hoarders who have to tunnel through our own consumer debris but we're really not. Last summer we put a ban on buying unnecessary stuff for the flat (something we had been guilty of in the past) and I am tidy to the point of being annoying. Still, mindless purchases throughout the years build up, almost without you noticing, until you look around and think, "why on earth do we have all this useless shit?"

So this time, we were brutal. Without trying to sound too Marie Kondo, if it wasn't useful or we didn't love it, it got the boot. It was heart-wrenching at points but the outcome was a huge relief. I felt unburdened. 

Increasingly, I find stuff (or possessions or things or whatever you want to call the non-essential bits we accumulate throughout our lives) to be a source of stress and guilt. When my wardrobe feels a bit full or the shelves look a little overstuffed, I feel overwhelmed. This excess stuff isn't making me happy, it's making me tense and anxious. It's a physical and mental burden. And it's a chain. If I sell something, it becomes someone else's burden once they grow tired of it too; if I donate it, it becomes the charity shop's burden; if it's something that can't be sold, donated or recycled then it becomes the earth's burden.

We're filling our lives and our planet with stuff. I often imagine the Earth bulging outwards as we churn out phone after t-shirt after PlayStation after sofa and wonder what's going to happen when we've reached capacity. Like a suitcase that has to be sat on to close, I feel that the Earth must be straining at the seams, ready to burst. The mental image leaves me feeling incredibly uneasy and a home full of stuff is just a reminder that I'm only serving to add to the burden.

In response to these feelings of worry, stress and guilt, I've been trying to change my habits. I've spoken previously about my fast fashion detox but this extends beyond my wardrobe. Of course, it's easy not to buy a TV or a computer but it's the little things that creep in, almost unnoticed. For example, I upgraded my phone last year as mine had finally given up after four years and I immediately looked for a new case. I may have had a newer model but it was exactly the same size as my old phone and so my existing case was perfectly fine. I didn't need a new case, I was just following the same old pattern I'd fallen into. 

That tiny event was really important in changing my behaviour. The average consumer is so settled into buying new rather than making do that they do it without thinking. When I found myself googling phone cases I was just doing what I'd been conditioned to do by years of advertising and 'treat yourself' rhetoric. It was a habit and habits can be broken. By just taking a second to really consider what I'm buying and, crucially, why I'm buying it, I've saved myself countless unnecessary purchases and the resultant burden of yet more stuff in my life and my home.

I don't want to look in my wardrobe and feel stressed just as much as I don't want to look at landfill sites and feel responsible. So, by questioning my choices and the motives behind each purchase, I hope to ease the burden and claw back both physical and mental space.