Talking to a friend on New Year’s about the downsizing process, he recommended I see the George Carlin skit about “Stuff.” Here it is. Pretty funny. Pretty true.
This is the most disturbing part of the downsizing process — the upsizing ego. The downsizing process is beginning to feel unhealthy, unclean. Conflict over things and desires feels elemental and ugly, less about the stuff and more about personality conflict, childhood roles and sibling competition. For this reason, I’m stepping away from the process for awhile and taking time to understand what this process is all about for me.
For as long as I remember, I tried to avoid conflict by avoiding having things that might engender jealousy or envy. As one of four children, this felt essential to emotional survival. Don’t make them jealous. Don’t make them envious! They will attack, make fun, humiliate you, And you won’t get what you want anyway.
I remember a girl in grade school who was a bit of a gang leader in a group of mean girls. She was a beautiful girl, the best dressed in our grade, and would often promise gifts to other girls as a way to ensure their loyalty. One day I came to school wearing a knit vest that belonged to one of my sisters. It was just like one that the girl had worn before, and I could see her looking at me archly. I remember feeling nervous, a little scared, like I was doing something wrong. I had felt very cute when I left the house, and happy that my sister had let me wear the vest. But the pleasure evaporated when I saw the girl looking at me appraisingly. I didn’t want to incite her envy, her notice, or her wrath. I never wore the vest again.
Having less stuff is also about flying under the radar. In our family, we tended to keep our desires hidden. To say what you want directly is risk humiliation, to be labeled as greedy, to be too bold and forward. For me, I think it was also a way to avoid conflict. To be worthy of envy was to be worthy of attack. To have is to risk. It feels very primitive.
But spending all this time with STUFF, managing stuff, looking at cool Victorian or Depression era stuff, checking out music and paintings and furniture and clothes — I find an unhealthy desire rising up. Want. Desire. I love looking at beautiful things. But do I actually need to own them?
I have always tried not to live ostentatiously and to use as few resources as possible. Most of our furniture, clothes and books come from garage sales, thrift stores or from the side of the road. This has given us the freedom to worry more about doing things than maintaining objects. With ownership of fancy STUFF comes the responsibility of taking care of it. Do I really want the work of taking care of fancy objects or furniture or art? Or would I rather take care of people and be active and healthy outside and in the community? When I was in college and our parents were living abroad, my mother spent a lot of time shopping, for want of something better to do. She would send presents on a regular basis — many of which were inappropriate to a college student living out of a suitcase. I often gave these things away, feeling their weight as I moved from place to place putting my stuff into storage. It felt light to own less.
But what I also notice about the process of going through stuff, is that even if I don’t want the stuff itself, I don’t necessarily want anyone else to have it either. In a perverse example of sibling competition, I don’t necessarily want them to have it either, or to “get ahead” or to “get away” with something. I also don’t want to be fooled or manipulated or pushed into giving something up or standing up for myself. I can’t just let it go and walk away. There’s a little voice in the back of my mind that says, “That’s not fair. Don’t push me around! I’ll take that last piece of cake, even if I am absolutely stuffed, just so you don’t get it!
On the other hand, there are some things that are so lovely I would love to have them, to look at them — just a few things! Is that wrong? Am I calling down wrath upon my head for standing up and saying, No, actually, you can’t have two of those. I’d like one!”