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Stuff and Thangs

July 1, 2015
'Moving out, and moving in.' by Cyril Caton via

‘Moving out, and moving in.’ by Cyril Caton via

We have a lot of “stuff and thangs,” as Rick Grimes would say. Nothing (literally) brings that home so much a moving. On the one hand, I tell myself, “Hey, I’m an American. We’re a materialistic culture. I’m an academic. My books are important to my work. I value my family. Naturally, I have a hard time giving away gifts I’ve received over the decades. I’m human and that object is beautiful, so of course I want to keep it.” I can come up with all sorts of reasons to keep things, even when I haven’t used them in over a year.

On the other hand, I think “I’m a very bad Buddhist. I’m so attached to my possessions. I invest so much of my so-called ‘identity’ in what I own. I feel personally threatened at the thought of loosing this or that item. I know this is all delusion. Why do I have so much stuff?”

I actually find some aspects of moving helpful, almost pleasant. The sheer amount of labor involved is daunting, but it does provide an important opportunity to take an inventory of one’s life and one’s things. It provides a needed push to be generous and I lost track of the trips we made to Goodwill just before and after the move. We sold and gave away furniture to neighbors and friends, despite keep far more things than any two people could possibly need.

Moving also brings people together, like the four guys I recruited to help with the daunting labor. I’m always pleasantly surprised by the number of folks who cheerfully say “Yeah, I’ll help.” The not-so-secret truth is, I don’t want to help you move. I believe strongly in the human ethos of reciprocity. So our moving help enjoyed donuts, a good dinner, free beer, and cash, because I also believe in honesty. I am not coming to help them move. I have many skills, but my white collar job has not prepared me for manual labor.

Nevertheless, the labor is so much less daunting when you have someone working beside you. I’ve often wondered about this, about women who do their laundry side-by-side, about rice farmers collectively planting each person’s field in turn, about soldiers who march for miles surrounded by comrades. I don’t think the same social trigger works for intellectual labor, which is why I like my private office. But I know, beyond any doubt, that I could not have accomplished this move on my own even if I had all the time in the world and a body builder’s physique. 

I’m still not entirely sure why we have so much stuff. We purged a lot and my instinct tells me we could live quite happily with far less. Yet when it came down to sorting through individual objects, I could almost always find a reason to keep something. “I used it last week. We’d just have to replace it. That can be re-purposed. What if we have guests and I want to serve tea to ten people? My grandmother gave me this.”

It gives me a much greater respect for monastics, for the followers of the Buddha who went forth into homelessness to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. Many of them probably had less to start with than the average American does now, which might make it all the more precious. Yet they did it anyway. They continue to do it, right up to modern times. Oh, the monastics I know might own more than one pair of shoes and more than one box of books, which is certainly different from the Buddha’s time, but it’s still a sight better than I’ve managed. I know monks and nuns who can (and do) live out of a single suitcase or footlocker. Color me impressed.

I strive for simplicity in my life and my possessions. I fail. That’s okay for now.

PS – Huge shout out and thank you to Ben, Jack, Richard, and David. You guys rock!

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