How I fought the American addiction to 'more stuff'

I’ve been observing Lent by getting rid of at least one household possession each day in the run up to Easter. I've found that simplifying your life is harder than it looks. Consumer culture enriches our standard of living, yet complicates it, too.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/file
A reveler celebrates Ash Monday by participating in a colorful 'flour war,' a traditional festivity marking the end of the carnival season and the start of the 40-day Lent period until the Orthodox Easter,in the port town of Galaxidi, Greece, March 18, 2013.

This spring, in the month before this weekend’s celebration of Easter, I’ve been observing Lent by getting rid of at least one household possession each day.

Many Christians mark the 40 days before Easter by giving up a luxury – or doing something extra – as a way to promote spiritual growth. My resolution to lighten my home of personal belongings is something that a lot of us try to do at this time of year, regardless of our religious beliefs. Spring cleaning brings thoughts of clearing out the old to make room for the new.

But the past weeks have reminded me that simplifying your life is harder than it looks. Consumer culture enriches our standard of living, yet complicates it, too.

Which is why, even in the aftermath of a global recession and its spirit of austerity, stockpiling stuff seems to be an American epidemic, with reality shows devoted to documenting people who can’t stop filling their homes to the ceiling. My house isn’t like that, but one of the easiest ways to avoid personal reform is to point at others you perceive to be more flawed than you are.

Of course, there’s a difference between consumer-driven clutter and the hoarding of HGTV that stems from deep psychological trauma. But truth be told, as 2014 began, I’d begun to feel as if moss were gradually growing over my life, the rooms around me narrowed by the presence of things that burdened rather than blessed my existence.

As Easter approached, a pledge formed. I promised myself that day by day, I’d say goodbye to at least one book no longer read, or shirt no longer worn, or tool no longer used. My inspiration came from the writer Elizabeth Bishop, who famously urged her readers in a poem called “One Art” to “lose something every day.”

Bishop’s poem is about a great many things, including the maturity that comes from deep loss. But on one level, it can be read as a hymn to traveling light. What Bishop seems to say is that losing what we own can be a form of liberation, allowing us to move more freely toward fresh possibilities. It’s an idea as old as the Scriptures, at the heart of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” and as topical as the latest blog post about simple living.

But like any ideal, household economy is easier embraced than achieved, as I quickly discovered during my 40-Days-to-a-Thinner-House Plan.

Although neither my wife nor I would ever be mistaken for power shoppers, it seemed that every little thing removed from our home – an old paperback, a sweater, a television – would be replaced by the arrival of something else: a new book, another necktie, a deluxe scooper for walks with our terrier. In spite of my giveaway kick, the net sum of our worldly goods remained about the same.

E.B. White, who wasn’t an avid consumer, either, noted the phenomenon in 1957. Here’s White:

“A man could walk away for a thousand mornings carrying something with him to the corner and there would still be a home full of stuff. It is not possible to keep track of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day – smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up.”

After confronting that reality in my own attempts to scale back, I remembered a dietitian’s advice when I began a weight-loss plan a couple of years ago. Write down everything you eat, she told me, and you’ll get a clearer idea of how many calories you’re taking in each day.

I’ve begun the same practice with my life as a consumer, jotting down what I give away or discard, as well as what I acquire. The hope is that by being more mindful of what I own, I’ll be a wiser, more restrained steward of my home, my community, my planet.

But testing my experiment will take more time than Lent has allowed, so I’ll try to extend my new habit past Easter Sunday. Who knows? Maybe I’ve embarked on a lifelong regimen, a running ledger of loss and gain.

If you’re interested in what I’m doing, I invite you to do the same thing.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  He's on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.

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