Becoming a Non-consumer
I have lots of stuff. Having been on my own for 21 years, Ive accumulated lots of things in my travels. I live in a small place, so my stuff is really stuffed in here. Its books, mostly- with a pile of CDs and computer paraphernalia topping the list.
Its a bad habit- I like to get new things- even if theyre really old things from a flea market. And I dont like to throw out my old things- my mothers Depression-era "You might need it someday" meme is alive and loudly functioning.
But about a year ago, I began questioning this accumulative tendency of mine, as part of a mental and spiritual housecleaning Ive been doing. Why do I have all this stuff, and do I really want it or need it? And why do I like getting more? I seriously doubt that Ill go from one cluttered extreme to the bare room extreme- I love my library way too much to get rid of it.
So, I sat down and thought about it. I started observing my friends and colleagues behavior. I examined their lifestyles, and compared them to my own. With one or two exceptions, I was not alone. People are slowly burying themselves in a mountain of stuff. Its a Western disease as prevalent as the sudden epidemic of physical obesity. This could be the material goods reflection of that affliction.
Why is this so? Humans are born with an innate sense for the unique and unusual. Our brains are stimulated from birth to react to things that are bright and shiny or colorful. Such things begin the process of thought, and of exploration and stimulation. We are programmed to notice things that are different. It is the reason that police and firefighters have flashing lights on their vehicles, and traffic signs are painted such garish colors. We notice them. They are new. For early man, such differences were necessary for survival, and later, the careful examination of those differences led to the beginnings of science and technology. We find a pretty crystal, we keep the pretty crystal. And look here- it makes rainbows- isnt that neat? I call it the magpie instinct. Magpies love collecting pretty, shiny things. And getting more things- its an obsession with them.
Fast forward a few billion years. From the moment we are able to process information, our consumer culture grabs hold of that innate magpie instinct and milks it for all it is worth. It begins sending us messages that more is better, and you must have this or that to make you happy. More books, more music, more food, bigger car, bigger house, bigger servings, bigger clothes to fit your bigger body into. And, on the shadow side, bigger debts and the need of a bigger paycheck to pay it off- if you ever do.
What happened to moderation, or reduction? I think it died after the Second World War. With the advent of broadcast advertising, and our newfound wealth, the Depression-era practicality of re-utilizing things and doing things in moderation was swept under the rug- it looked too much like subsistence living.
But is it? It used to be that when people in the early part of the last century were children, they accepted what their parents gave them, and were content with it. There was no televised barker telling them that they had to have this or that toy- they made their own amusement. When they left their parents homes, they went through a necessary cycle of accumulating the necessities of life- the home, the job, the furniture, the kitchen gear, and the comfy stuff that made their home their own. And they maintained it, and were happy with it.
Nowadays, that is no longer true. Unless you isolate yourself and your offspring out in the woods without television or malls or peers, kids start getting the message that getting more stuff is the way of life at a very young age. The clarion cry of "I want" echoes through stores everywhere. Go listen- youll hear "I want" more often than "Momma" out of the mouths of babes and bigger kids alike. It is no wonder- they are targeted by the advertising industry- who have studied their psychology thoroughly, and understand their magpie instincts more intimately than their parents do. Against this accumulative drumbeat of the admen from TV, magazines, and even schools, parents are helpless- because they are being swept along by it themselves. I have watched minivans, then SUVs spring up in suburban driveways like mushrooms after a rainstorm, because parents dont want their precious offspring to be less safe than their peers. I even overheard one spoilt scion complain to a parent that they did not want to visit their grandparents because they had a lousy car.
So, this is where we are- in a perpetual ratrace of accumulation, slowly choking in our own stuff. How do we reverse it?
Recall that I said that the pre WWII people went through a stage of accumulation when they left their homes. It was necessary, and still is. I peg the accumulative years from the age one leaves home to around the early to mid-thirties. By the time youre in your mid thirties, you should have gotten-and replaced the garage-sale stuff of your early adult hood, and acquired at least a starter home and some financial stability. You should have all your kitchen appliances, a TV and stereo you like, and all the other stuff your life needs.
Heres where most people mess up. Instead of saying- "I have enough, lets get rid of some of this stuff, " they keep adding stuff to their lives like theyre right out of their parents homes. They dont get rid of the things they already have- instead, they move out of the starter home into a McMansion, if they can afford it. And more room means more stuff, and on it goes. Theyre stuck in the accumulative mode, and dont even realize it.
So, how do you change directions and go from accumulating to maintaining and disseminating? It has to be a conscious decision. And you have to really work at it, because those "BUYBUYBUY" messages are not going to go away. When you reach your "Im full" point, take a look at what you have and start sorting through it. Get rid of things you havent used in a year or more. Have a big garage sale, or if you cant stand strangers pawing through your stuff and dissing it, get their values and give them to Goodwill, then deduct their value from your taxes. Switch your mindset from accumulating to maintaining. Replace things as they get worn out or you tire of them. Make a conscious note of knowing that all the fascinating dinnerware in Target isnt for you- its for some other person. Admire it, desire it, then walk away. Instead of buying the things you see in the Sunday supplements of your paper, try this: cut out their pictures- including prices, and make an "I want" diary. Dont buy the stuff- just paste their pictures into this diary. Keep it for a year, then add up the prices. Make sure someone is nearby with smelling salts- because you will swoon.
I did that- I ended up with a thick notebook full of stuff and enough in my savings to take my first vacation in 7 years. You can also do as I did- turning the cutting and pasting of Things to Want and Buy into a magickal operation. I created a runestave and sigil to trap the desire for the items into the notebook, so they would not trouble me. And I kept a running tab of their prices to empower me to turn away from their temptation.
I also give myself a treat allowance: $50 from every paycheck to get goodies to satisfy my Inner Magpie. Most of it is spent on books- if I cannot get them at my library. If I dont spend it, it gets forwarded to the next paycheck. Placing these limits on my spending permits me to have money left over at the end of the month. This surplus goes into savings.
I have been living this lifestyle for a year, and for the first time, I can look at things in a store and know that I can actually afford them. But even better is the realization that I do not have to have them NOW- or later. Desire fades- one must be ever mindful that humans thrive on newness- and something else will come along to eclipse that particular want.
I am much happier now than I was a year ago. I am making a dent in my debts from overspending. I will be debt free in another year. In my quest to reduce my belongings, I have rediscovered books I had forgotten I had, and am resuming studies that I had abandoned years ago. I am content with what I have now.
The best part is knowing that I am no longer a slave to the consumer clarion cry of BUYBUYBUY- I can filter that out, and be content with who and what I am. And I can see the world for what it truly is. I hope that this little essay will help you to open your eyes and close your ears to the consumer cry, too. And keep your magpie happy, too.
Then you can truly be IN this world, and not OF it.
© 2000 Sunfell