Stuff and Utility

by Dan Walsh

Overgeneralizing “stuff” diminishes the nuanced utility of possessions.

As more and more of my life gets stuffed into boxes I can’t help but contemplate my possessions. I have an ingrained aversion to “stuff”, as defined as products of needless consumerism and things that take up space without being useful. But even with this aversion it’s easy to amass a lot of stuff over seven years in the same apartment. I was looking forward to getting rid of a lot of this junk during the move. In the beginning, the miscellaneous drawers were easy targets because they are a treasure trove of easy-to-throw-away junk. Party straws, rubber bands, disposable chopsticks and matchbooks are all trash. These easy wins didn’t account for much, however, and it wasn’t long before all the “stuff” started to have meaning.

My current aversion to stuff was galvanized on a backpacking trip in Thailand. I brought too much stuff with me – stuff I thought I’d need. But I quickly learned that all this stuff had weight. You can forget about a junk drawer in your kitchen, but not if you have to lug that crap around on your shoulders from town to town. If something wasn’t vital, I gave or threw it away. I even stopped shaving for the rest of the trip so I wouldn’t have to carry a disposable razor. Stick to the necessities.

This reduction mentality is common among anyone who’s travelled for an extended time. It’s a liberating experience for anyone who’s gone through it, and like all good experiences I tried to hang onto that lesson. When I moved into my current apartment I made a concerted effort to keep my belongings light – streamlined. This worked for awhile, but like a said, seven years in one place is a lot of time for one’s belongings to get heavy. I realize now that this accumulation has been causing me low-level stress for years now.

Too much stuff! Too much stuff!

My brain screamed at me when my roommate moved out with his tv and I bought a new one.

Too much stuff! Too much stuff!

I felt palpitations when Angelica and I purchased “guest linens” for a friend who stayed with us for an extend time.

Too much stuff! Too much stuff!

I cringed when we purchased a cheeseboard and serving tray for Thanksgiving dinner this past year.

Arg! Where will we even store this thing?!

But you know what, that serving tray is pretty fucking awesome. We use it at least once a month when we have friends over for a nice dinner. How can spending time with good friends be wrong?

It can’t.

Sure, we could spend time with our friends without the serving tray, but the reality is all that “stuff” chanting and over-generalizing blinded me to the nuances of my possessions. Sure, there’s a junk drawer filled with crap that I accumulated on accident, but most of the things I own were acquired on purpose. These possessions imparted their utility to me. They made me more capable.

I have to be careful here, though, because that “capable” mentality is how every company wants me to feel about their products. This is the trap that creates useless consumerism. To a large extent I feel inoculated from this marketing by my backpacking experience. Living lightly is at the opposite end of the consumer lifestyle spectrum. But though it is streamlined, it is also limiting, and this is where the need for balance arises.

Backpacking is a romantic idea, but one that comes with a few understandings. The first is that the trip will be temporary. The second is that sacrifices must be made. For example, I wouldn’t plan to eat at fancy restaurants because carrying a change of nice clothes would be too much stuff. I would be ok with this choice because I know it’s temporary. I like to paint (though not as often these days), but I didn’t carry all my art supplies with me. Living a real life isn’t temporary though. When I return to my apartment I want those freedoms I sacrificed to be available again. I want to occasionally eat out at nice restaurants. I want to paint and have other hobbies. These freedoms to choose manifest as a great big heaping pile of stuff.

I have the freedom to go rock climbing in one box and the freedom to go skiing in another box. I have garbage bags full of the freedom to dress well or dress to relax. I have the freedom to express myself creatively or take a break and play videogames stacked up in the corner. I don’t have a bunch of stuff to move. I have a bunch of freedom to relocate.