Hoarders like me
I’d never be able to get rid of all my things like that.
For a long time that was my reaction to people whose aspiration is to live with less. A life with less stuff was unimaginable, because I liked all the things that I had. I worked hard at collecting and curating them, and I believed that I needed all of them, too.
I had always had a lot of things. I remember well the beginning of my second year at University, when I arrived at my new shared house. I turned up with a Zafira filled to the roof with possessions, and a bike strapped to the back. One of my housemates had just a cardboard box, a suitcase, and a bike. I figured, people are different, that’s just the way I am.
Recently I was going through my old bedroom at home and deciding what to keep and what to chuck before getting married. I found a stack of magazines, some of which dated back to 2011, and that was when I realised I was a hoarder.
I’d never thought I was a hoarder, but a pile of redundant magazines or newspapers which you keep for no conceivable reason is pretty striking evidence that you have a problem.
The magazines were issues of a German publication called NEON which I started reading at A Level to improve my languages, so they had been useful once. Now they were sitting on the bottom book shelf because I had a feeling that I might possibly need to refer to them one day. I hadn’t ever referred back to them, but there was still a chance I might, so I told myself.
That is textbook reasoning for a hoarder. If this is news to you, then maybe you are a hoarder like I was.
Why is it that a material culture of accumulation seems to have such a hold on us? I thought I enjoyed having all that stuff, but at the same time I was acutely aware of the burden of all the objects in my life.
Part of the problem is in the fact that the acquisition of things has an ever-increasing threshold for happiness. As we acquire we get a little kick, so we go looking for another kick and need a slightly bigger one. We know this intuitively. We eat so much at buffets that we become physically uncomfortable and wish we’d never taken the first bite. We consume porn to the point where sexual acts no longer satisfy and then find our way to darker and more violent content. We buy the latest version of tech or the new cycle of fashion because we get a hit of dopamine in seeing ourselves with the new phone, new shoes. We look for substance-induced highs and drink more, smoke more, drop more, because we’re used to it and this time we’ll just take a slightly bigger hit.
In the end, consumption and possession are no different. In the attempt to acquire more, we will have to keep acquiring greater amounts to make good on the investment, to find satisfaction.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised that possession is an act of control. The accumulation of things is an attempt to order our environment. There is indeed a certain amount of security and comfort which wealth and resources can offer, up to a point. For many of us in Western society, however, we have all we need and yet still desire more, and the collecting of unessential items becomes a token method of controlling one’s environment.
There’s a kind of superstition in the feeling that things bring security and reduce uncertainty, as talismans in our houses and apartments. Ownership is a way of exercising control in life. They say, after all, possession is nine-tenths of the law, the way that we assert our claims on the world. It follows that more possession equals a greater claim, and therefore greater control.
Possession is by no means the only method of control. It’s just interesting that the desire to have control manifests in our materiality, probably because this is the most immediate and obvious way of changing one’s circumstance. We can fill our environment with objects. They are easy to comprehend, organise, control, they don’t have minds of their own, we can understand their properties and what we’d like to do with them, and generally they stay where you leave them. In short, we hold on to things because they are easy to hold on to.
I’d argue that what we really desire is much more abstract, and uncertain. Relationship, intimacy, achievement, belonging, connection, friendship, purpose. These do not lend themselves to easy comprehension or definition, and often involve the uncertainty of other people. A friend can let you down, or a lover can spurn you, but a TV is always a TV, a coin collection retains its qualities. The certainty of concrete nouns offers comfort in place of losing or damaging the unstable abstract nouns, for which we truly long.
Ruth and I aspire to a life with fewer things in it, but we’re not so naive as to aspire to a life of nothing. There is a limit to the possessions which are necessary. It’s part of the survival instinct to want to have enough tools and provisions to be comfortable. A certain amount of money and material makes us comfortable. The reason for wanting more, for all the acquiring of more things and better things, is the survival instinct gone into over-drive. Objects brought us security this far, so we reason that increasing amounts or stuff will bring increasing levels of happiness. We believe this, even though we intuit that it can’t really be true.
In the end, our obsession with objects is an attempt to distract ourselves from a macarbe truth: the reality of death. Why else do we collect and hoard? What is the point of all the keeping and the curating and the storing, if we already have what we need? What do we hope to achieve?
We fixate on objects because they are easy to grasp, and also because we hope something of them will last. We trust the material world for a legacy. We know that we will end, some day, and rightfully fear that nothing will remain.
I never thought that I’d want to try and become a minimalist. I had visions of a bare white bedroom, a wardrobe containing two sets of black clothes, a single scrawny bookshelf with a thin tome, exposed floorboards, a single bulb dangling from the light fitting, like a fishing rod.
Like most people (I imagine) I thought these were the trappings of a minimal lifestyle. I always liked having stuff, I enjoyed my things, and having lots of them, having options. All that space and emptiness didn’t appeal.
The problem with “possessions” is inherent in the word itself: do you possess them, or do they possess you? There’s no joy in feeling overrun by the things we have, or driven mad by the fantasies of the things we could have. It is much better to have less and appreciate it more than to dilute your enjoyment with a myriad of objects.
A minimalist lifestyle encourages the practice of letting go, which is essential if you want to be free of all the physical and emotional baggage of life. We can only hold onto things for so long. Objects need to move on, hurt must be forgiven, grudges should be let go.
In the same way that we might use possessions to gain a sense of control, letting go of our stuff releases us from our concerns of control. More than that, we acknowledge that we never had control in the first place.
Our inclination is to hold on. We constantly receive the message that we should accumulate, we should aspire to have more stuff. We see vengeance and retribution in film and on TV, acts of holding on to past hurt and historical grudges.
I first heard this on the Minimalists podcast, and have since found it attributed to the writer Anne Lammott: “Everything I let go of has claw marks on it.” It is only by practising the art of letting go that we learn to hold things lightly and give up our control-freak tendencies.
One of the greatest lies we believe in this life is that it is possible to fully gain control of that life. Though we chase this ideal, we know that any number of events could take place which is beyond our control. Acts of God, you might say.
And despite our desire for a life with more or better stuff in it, we are subconsciously aware of the limits of this materiality. We know that things like clothes and trainers and a phone upgrade and flat-pack furniture and a drinks fridge and that necklace and a barista-style home coffee machine aren’t going to fill the void, even though we keep going back to them in the hope of finding satisfaction.
The remedy lies in learning to let go. This is the only way to rid ourselves of the illusion that materiality alone will satisfy. It’s a muscle that we must learn to use, or it will tense up and be unable to let go of anything.
As with any practice, you have to start somwhere and keep practicing. Before we got married in July 2018, I gave away 100 books to charity shops (over 50% of my books), gutted my wardrobe, and donated those NEON magazines to my sixth form centre. More books will go, and I’m sure the wardrobe will shrink again as well.
Of the magazines I have never regretted getting rid of them or wished that I’d kept them ‘just in case’. I only ever sense the relief of having let go.