Identity and Our Belongings

park bench

I’ve been wondering if we’re all too busy. And this probably pertains to sustainability, so bear with me. This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was sitting in the park in Middlebury, what they call the “town green” here in New England. We needed some groceries, so I had driven the Leaf, and figured I’d just hang out on the green while it charged up a bit on the much-faster public chargers. Sitting there, I was reminded of times when my wife and I would be near that very spot when we were in our 20’s while in Vermont visiting her relatives—we used to go to the green and just sit in the shade and read books all day.

Not so anymore. It seems like the only time I actually sit around and read for any great length of time is when I happen to be waiting in an airport, or am flying. With house and jobs and kids and property and possessions, time to just sit in a park seems to be a rare thing. And sitting in a park, or somewhere away from home and work, seems to be a different kind of sitting—at home or work there’s always, always, some distraction or task to perform.

So I was reflecting on this, sitting in the park, and it was making me think of what I was reading about “Minimalism” last month. This, because I do think that our possessions have a great deal to do with us not having any time. I’ve had conversations with Mr. X about this for years—as we get older, we get more “stuff”, and every bit of it needs maintenance of some sort. If we’re not careful, our whole lives become “maintenance”. We become slaves to our belongings. Then we have less time to do the things that are meaningful, so this acquiring of possessions becomes a sort of spiritual cancer. And, we seem to work harder and harder at work, to make more and more money, to buy yet more things, or worse, to pay someone to take care of those things because we don’t have time anymore, because…we’re working. It’s a crazy treadmill of consumerism, and that consumerism is part of what’s trashing the planet.

So, after writing that Minimalism post last month (“Minimalism and Our Couches”, at http://sustainableus.org/2013/05/14/minimalism-and-our-couches/ ), I decided to give away our pop-up camper. I much prefer the tent, anyway, and the camper needed some maintenance that was just one more chore on my to-do list. So I gave it to an acquaintance who wanted to fix it. An excellent decision—my life instantly got simpler when he pulled away with it, and my yard now has one less item in it to mow around.

So last week I decided to take Mr. X’s advice, and sell my hay equipment, too. I haven’t used it in several years, and probably won’t need it again anytime soon because I’m happy with my lease arrangement with the local farmer. BUT—this one gave me pause. I realized that our belongings are often part of our identities. I’m not just any guy, I’m not a city guy, I’m a guy that lives in the country and has chain saws and a tractor and a baler and a hay rake and a hay mower. So, I’m still going to sell it, and might have a buyer, but it has made me think—this problem of excess consumption is closely tied with how we view ourselves, and the world. As Herbert Marcuse put it back in the 60s, we are “tied to the commodity form”.

But we need to be careful with this. The real meaning in our lives comes from our experiences, and our families, and our friends. Not from our belongings. In terms of real meaning, they are empty. And the time it takes to maintain the belongings just takes away from the things that really matter.

And if I have a point, it might be this—as with so many of these issues that revolve around sustainability, the better choice for the environment is often also the better choice for our health and happiness. This is true if we bike to the store instead of drive, it’s true if we eat some garden veggies instead of fast food, it’s true if we canoe down a river instead of tearing up trails on a four-wheeler, it’s true if we hike a nearby mountain instead of jetting off to Vegas. And, it’s also true if we have less material possessions. This gives us more free time, more money in the bank, or less need to work—and doesn’t detract from our spiritual well-being. And it just might help save the planet.

So I’ll be selling that hay equipment, even though I kind of like having it, “just because”. And maybe I’ll have more time to sit in the park.

Image credit: johnpalmier / 123RF Stock Photo

2 thoughts on “Identity and Our Belongings

  1. Jake

    There is much truth in this post. Our identities are all wrapped up in our stuff, our jobs, our accomplishments. And while some of those things are important they cannot become most important or, as you say, they become a “spiritual cancer”. For those items that you may need occasionally, like the hay baler perhaps, what are your thoughts about collaborative consumption (re: a recent NY Times opinion piece: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/its-not-just-nice-to-share-its-the-future/)?

    What you’re talking about is cultural change. And this is even more difficult to effect than most other types of change. Your example, however, shows how these kinds of changes in perception and personal values are most likely to come about: your kids watch what you do and may adopt the same outlook as they grow to adulthood.

  2. Taborri Post author

    Jake,
    Good points about setting an example, that’s actually a topic on my “to blog” list. I haven’t read the Times article; I will, though. -tb

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