When I left America in 2005 to work in Chile I had two suitcases to hold everything I wanted to bring with me for a two years. It didn’t seem like much space. Even though I used every permitted ounce—my checked baggage was 100 pounds, on the nose—I was struck by how little fit in my bags. I wrote a manifest that included, among other things:
At the time having eight shirts seemed very few. After awhile, though, I forgot that eight wasn’t very many; I just wore whatever I found in the closet that was (mostly) clean. Some way into this transformation my friend Kate wrote once to ask, “Do you have any other shirts besides that red one?” Well, yeah, I said defensively. Though when I looked at the photos I shared online, I can see how she might have thought that.
There’s nothing special about this red shirt. If you picked any article from my wardrobe, I could find a dozen photos of me wearing it. The funny thing is that you eventually forget about the paucity of options. Many of the people I worked with didn’t have tons of clothing either. At meetings I’d see people wearing the same sweatshirts they wore the week before. I was the same; if you saw me in the winter, indoors or out, there was an 80% chance I was wearing a black fleece.
Fast-forward two years: I get home, open my closet, and I’m shocked by how much clothing I have. I made a quick count of T-shirts in my room and I found 51. After getting by with just six, having eight times that just seems ridiculous. And the thing is it isn’t just T-shirts—I have tons of pants, sweatshirts, and polos—but it isn’t just clothing either. It’s books, boxes, computer gear, and just plain junk. When I look at the amount of stuff that I have collected in my room it’s baffling.
Part of it has to do with me being a pack rat—I have almost every paper I received in high school stored in four boxes of hanging file folders—but part of it is a reluctance to get rid of things. “What if I might use that sometime?” When you combine that with our typical desire to accumulate, that’s why there’s so much stuff around.
Now that I have seen the contrast between what I had in Chile and how much I have here, I’m trying to reverse the trend. My beef isn’t that having so many things is bad in itself—maybe it is, maybe it isn’t—but that I can’t actually make use of this much stuff. What I can’t use clutters my space and keeps it from others who might find it useful. Now I’m piling up clothing to donate, I’m recycling useless papers, and I’m getting ready for an eBay selling spree. This stuff has got to go.
How much stuff do you have? How much is useful to you on a regular basis?