No Country for Old Things

On possessions and identity

What do the number and nature of your possessions signify, and do you think about them?

Several months ago, staring down the maw of a transcontinental move with little more than suitcase in hand and trusty backpack stuffed to the brim, the prospect of packing loomed large. After all, two bags is not much for all of one’s worldly possessions. A not-inconsiderable interstitial period of sorting, categorising, and packing lay ahead. Deciding what was necessary for everyday living—i.e. what would stay and what would go—could not be put off.

Once even the barest of inroads had been made, the rabbit hole began to yawn wide. Items that elicit the question, “How often do I use this?” go into the “maybe” pile; “Where did this come from?” are flung into the corner; “Don’t I already have, like, four of these things?” lands atop the donation pile. But these questions all eventually lead to a stumbling consideration of exactly how much is required for the living of life and being yourself.

One possible possible result of such an examination is the reduction of your possessions towards a form of minimalism. Any promises of fulfillment or unburdening by reducing your material possessions seem somewhat farfetched, or, at the very least, extremely subjective. A brief examination of exactly what is meant by “minimalism” and what it hopes—or purports—to achieve is warranted before tossing debris left and right.

A quick perusal of Wikipedia reveals that minimalism aims to achieve simplicity though a reduction of elements, leaving only the essentials. These principles, originally applied to art and design, translate well when applied to other aspects of life. Hence, when applied to physical possessions, would ostensibly promise to reduce complexity and clutter in everyday life. This philosophy and various permutations all aim for some form of existential benefit though material reduction.

The pack-discard-move cycle seems—if one listens to the resigned lamentations of friends—to be among the more execrable experiences associated with a household move. The degree to which this is true rests heavily upon the shoulders of habit. Most consumption habits seem to depend on the formative years spent learning by example. More often than not, those routines, ingrained early, will develop though maturation and come to rest somewhere along the Pack Rat to Minimalist spectrum; redundant multiples of kitchen utensils, buying to replace instead of add, purchasing by impulse instead of plan, these habits shape and shift the physical environment you inhabit. That is not to say that a shift from one end of the spectrum to the other—either corralled by circumstance or self motivated—is at any time is out of the question.

A person’s living situation tends to reinforce certain habits: studio apartments entail close quarters and limited storage space, houses and larger apartments encourage spreading out lest they feel empty. When it comes time for a move, the current space and the manner of its population will dictate how the process of packing is to be gone about.

If previous moves (house to apartment, apartment to smaller apartment) are any indication, the usual preparatory movements involve the shedding of possessions in anticipation of a new environment. When these decisions are nigh, the totality of your belongings break into bundles from which the essentials can be sorted, boxed, and dispatched.

While categorizing, assessing, and filing, it is nigh inevitable that the parade of objects before you will set the brain whirring away. How they were acquired and why have they stuck around? These questions can be both useful for the purposes of sorting, and a hindrance to productivity. Gifts tend to be harder to discard, less frequently used items bought on a whim easier. But, should one wish to venture deeper, the questions become at once less practical and more philosophical: What does the volume and nature of my possessions say about me?

“These are my things, and I like to be surrounded by them. I do some things with these things, but the main thing I to with these things is be me.”

—Ryan Sheely, TFT Podcast Ep. 91

To consider possessions as reflective of a sense of self—a notion postulated as the “infrastructure of identity” by Matthew Wrather and Ryan Sheely on the TFT Podcast—could be taken as a somewhat cynical vision of the identity, but its value for rumination is substantial. Wrather and Sheely posit that of the totality of personal possessions, only a core selection are essential to getting work done, being comfortable, and being “me”. The size and constitution of this core will be specific to every individual and may introduce (or confirm) the value inherent in your possessions and their associated activities. Specifically, how money and time are allocated between them.

Furthermore, as a counterpoint to purchases that project an image of self, the things others purchase for you can represent their mental model of you—or, at least, who they want you to be. The cookbook for Christmas, the framed family photo, the decorative oven mitt, the gym membership are all attached to certain signifiers of lifestyle and value.

This is, arguably, a jaundiced view of the well-intentioned generosity of others, but the mental exercise is well worth the effort. Separating what you covet from what you want for another (or what you understand them to desire) is no easy task; the art of gift-giving is a difficult one to master. To further complicate matters, the giving of something that is personally appreciated and valued is inextricable from the platonic ideal of the gift; the hope for a shared understanding or connection—or at the least, some shared goodwill—is no doubt subconsciously tied to the shopping process. That is to say, whether intentionally or not, a gift makes claims on both the projected and perceived identities of both “giftor” and “giftee”, regardless of intentions.

When the time comes to consider your possessions, the calculus of this infrastructure is complicated not only by the objects that form a sense of self, but also by the assorted claims on that identity though gifts. A typical method for dealing with these considerations is to look on from the side lines as they accumulate, but this abstinence from action achieves little of worth; the only path to reduced mental overhead is through the tough questions

The desire for less, or at least for an infrastructure built upon a studied consideration of personal priorities does not typically spring, as if from the head of Zeus, fully formed. In the years in which many life-long habits are formed, this infrastructure is often learned, but an autodidactic approach is as easily attempted. A tendency toward minimalism or clutter reduction is almost certainly not innate, being a product of the physical and social environment; inheriting some measure of proclivity for tidiness simply reduces the length of the journey.

The impetus for starting down this path is typically brought about by some major change in habitation—i.e. a first move away from home or to a foreign country. The former presents an opportunity to leave a life’s worth of accumulated clutter behind, the latter a chance to start anew. A first move means accounting for the better part of two decades worth possessions and their place in the new physical and mental space. Parting ways with childhood toys collecting dust or the rat’s nest of cables lurking in the draw are all part of this process. A foreign move occupies the same mental space—albeit with more stringent requirements—as a regular move: what you can carry with you in a suitcase.

The simple questions, “What do I need for tonight and the next few days?” and subsequently, “What can I move in the following weeks?” are necessary on a purely practical level. Basic considerations of need and want turn out to be an effective way of separating those items that enable you to be “yourself” from the sea of miscellanea you passively possess. In the subsequent days and weeks, it becomes increasingly apparent that the portion left out of the initial move is, in fact, non-essential. How do years of accumulation suddenly become unnecessary?

In the afterglow of a move, what at first seems like some great victory of reduction can, in fact, be a simple secession of person from belongings. A simple cleanse when moving may have lightened the load, but the work of defining a core infrastructure still remains. That being said, once in a new environment and comfortably “living with less”, it becomes easier to make inroads towards some form of intentioned minimalism. It is, however, just as easy to begin anew the collection so recently shrugged.

A shedding of possessions as the product of a move yields results, but what of a larger shift? Some choose to shed as much as possible, but others do so out of necessity: living space restrictions, transportation constraints, fiscal concerns—there are many factors that contribute to the mental overhead of a geographical transplant. For those on this track, the aforementioned identity construction becomes a pressing concern. Given limited volume, a random assortment of possessions is unlikely to best serve any one need. It behooves the packer to focus on the interests that are highest in both importance and frequency.

The 100 Thing Challenge would seem to be the popular pinnacle of this philosophy: reduce your possessions to the bare necessities and you will be free to focus your mental pursuits elsewhere. There are many variations on this theme—The 333 Project focuses on clothing, with a practical preparation based system organised around seasonal conditions.

On a practical level, what could one expect to gain as a direct consequence of material reduction? An immediate effect is that of the increased mobility it affords: the less you have to physically tie you to one location, the easier it is to move in greater distance or frequency. For those to whom remote work is appealing, this holds great promise for the freedom nomadic existence affords. On a more widely applicable level, the reduced mental overhead of a smaller number of things increases the focus on what you have, rather than what you want.1

Thus far, the assumed result of evaluating one’s belongings is a reduction in clutter, but what if the peripherals that minimalism eschews are, in fact, an integral part of your infrastructure; what if life accrues in the cracks littered with souvenirs and baubles? If money represents the “more is more” philosophy, then minimalism assumes the same of less2—but is this strictly correct?

Certainly, there is an argument to be made for unfettered accumulation, when the stationary banditry of adulthood3 trumps mobility or any sense of fulfillment the trappings (or lack thereof) of a minimalist lifestyle brings. The collection of a diverse range of hobbies often means specific sets of tools associated with each, and a lifetime of memories is not always best served by photos on a hard drive. But even for those to whom the possibility of less is desirable, the conscious decision to live a maximalist lifestyle is not in error.

If such a stark dichotomy exists between minimal and maximal lifestyles, then a change from one to the other must surely involve some form of mental sculpting. Does freeing yourself from clutter mean you will finally be ready to write? Will your mind be clearer? Conversely, one wonders if a journey in the opposite direction could act as a form of relaxation,4 a freeing of the material constraints of a minimal existence.

To follow this line of thinking, might the perception of self also undergo a change based on a movement in one direction or the other?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not easy, especially as the ability to see outside oneself and judge the difference between a past and current mental state is virtually inaccessible for most. These questions are almost certainly up to the individual, and best answered through personal experimentation and reflection.

The march toward reduction is all very well, but what of living with those decisions? Lifestyles are often constrained by practical limitations related to occupation, income, culture, and long-term commitments. Happily, minimalism is a practice that can be achieved without regard to many of those factors—i.e. reducing physical possessions is likely to cost less money, rather than more. If circumstances align to allow a flexible lifestyle, then reduction can be a way to accelerate those choices.

Perhaps most importantly, reduction introduces a necessary mindfulness to everyday consumption. If the goal is to do with less—reasons aside—then a certain amount of consideration is required to either reduce to a given volume or maintain a desired level. One of the main reasons why many find it difficult or undesirable (or simply not worth their while) to achieve a form of minimalism is that the amount of mental effort involved is significant: loosing that object you love but has no purpose other than sunk cost is no easy task. The other lingering questions—“How much should I reduce by?” and “At what point is this process complete?”—are not easily answerable, and ultimately up to the individual.

To help manage—or at least reduce—the mental overhead involved with such decisions, several mechanisms are worth considering. The aforementioned 100 Thing Challenge is one such arbitrary rule that gives a definite goal and end-state. The number seems to have no real significance, other than being round and within reasonable limits. It provides an achievable goal and a starting place for a concept that is somewhat nebulous. The concrete “finish line” should not be considered the end but rather a beacon to light the way in an ongoing process; the framework should raise questions as to the appropriateness of both the number and the nature of one’s possessions.

Once some form of goal is established, or at least worked towards, there is the matter of maintaining the current state. Ideally, items would be replaced as they wear out or break, but this is somewhat removed from the reality of consumption. It is unrealistic, for example, to expect one’s wardrobe to only change on rare occasions; at the very least, a change of clothes based on seasons is reasonable. A framework for dealing with these changes in the context of minimalism is the simple “one in, one out’” system, in which any addition to the current set requires an attendant subtraction. The real consequence of this practice is not so much the maintenance of equilibrium but the mindfulness this brings to the purchasing process: as much time spent considering something new must also must be given to the thing it will replace.

A newfound mindfulness is all well and good, but having re-settled or finished pruning and instituting some form of system, there are always unforeseen circumstances. New clothes for different climates and new seasons, cooking utensils and ingredients, electronic detritus of all colors begin to pile up bit by bit. Several coping mechanisms will help keep these developments relegated at least to semi-consciousness—indeed, the value of minimalism is the awareness it creates. Impulse purchases will still plague budgets, but perhaps not as persistently as before, and the infrastructure that justifies them is thrown into relief.

Without appropriate consideration, reduction becomes an end unto itself, a machine in perpetual motion powered by an abstract concept. But the process of reduction is the true source of value; transforming from a state of mental morass, where decisions and lifestyles are decided unconsciously or by instinct, to one where impulses to gather and increase shift into conscious thought and action—even if that ultimately means the decision to have more things in order to be yourself.

  1. A new found mindfulness of what I choose to surround myself has meant an increase in both the time devoted to the consideration of each new purchase, and the maintenance of those belongings. Focusing on buying one item that is not intended to be replaced, but rather maintained and used regularly and performs its task in an exemplary manner.

  2. If we ascribe a dragon as the avatar of Maximalism, then what should come to represent minimalism? A Knight seems appropriate given St. George—perhaps.

  3. This great turn of phrase is shamelessly lifted from the TFT episode mentioned earlier in this piece. It generally refers to the propensity—or at least expectation—for adulthood to involve less geographical movement and greater physical ties than that of adolescence or early adulthood.

  4. The opposite direction may be some form of [Retail Therapy], but that doesn’t necessarily cast an illuminating light on identity so much as compulsion.