Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Material is Mortal Error

Getting rid of things can be hard, but it shouldn't be.

A friend is dealing with the death of his parents.  They left a house full of furniture, clothes, cars, photo albums, mementos, family heirlooms, and all sorts of crap.  What to do with it all?  He is paralyzed by it, and it is taking him months to sort through it all.

What he needs is a good house fire.  It would solve all his problems.

Other people's crap is just that  - other people's crap.  Getting all weepy and sentimental about Dad's old tools, or Mom's old mixing bowl is a pretty pointless waste of time, particularly when you have a mountain of this kind of garbage to sort through.

If you let it, this kind of thing can end up dominating your life - taking years to go through, and preventing you from living your own life.  Unless your parents are famous, you needn't set up a museum to their memory.

"But Mother always said this was a precious collectible!"   Well, that's good, maybe you can get some good money for it.  But odds are, it isn't as valuable as she said - people always over-value their own possessions - and there are studies and psychological theories to back this up.

Keeping an heirloom or keepsake because "it's worth something" is the dumbest argument you can make.  Unless it is something you want then get rid of it.   I was faced with this problem with an old shoe.  It dated from the 1700's and was probably a courting gift or display item back then.   It was too small for anyone's foot, and there was only one shoe.  It was labeled as being made by a fellow named Sands, for his girlfriend, and perhaps in 1770 it looked pretty nice, but 300 years had faded it pretty well.

So, this ugly old shoe had been handed down from generation to generation, each Mother saying, "This is really valuable" when taking it out of the box.  Everyone would oooh and aaaaah and then put it back in the box for another five years.  What is the point of that?

I have no heirs, so likely it would be thrown out when I die.  What is the point of that?

A better solution was to sell it on eBay and thus insure that (a) someone who appreciated the item would enjoy it, (b) that it would be preserved for posterity (whatever that is), (c) it cleaned up more clutter in my closet, and (d) it put $287 in my bank account.

Of course, a lot of other things just need to be thrown out - as they have no value to anyone.  The key is to not be attached to the material.  But we all do this - programmed from birth to think that owning "things" is the key to happiness and that since things are hard-fought and hard-won, they should be hung onto at all costs.

So, we put things in storage lockers and pay more in rental fees, over the years, than they are ever worth.  I have a friend who has six of these, and over a decade, has paid tens of thousands of dollars in storage fees.  He has no idea what is in them anymore.  He ends up going out and re-buying things he already owns, as he can't get at any of these priceless possessions.  Eventually, the lockers will be sold at auction, likely when he dies, or when he finally gives up and stops paying the rental fees.

My friend with the inherited house is already talking about renting multiple lockers, so he can put all this stuff in them (to sell the house) and thus give him "more time" to look over this valuable junk and sort through it all.  This is madness.  This is incipient hoarding disorder.  And yes, his parent's suffered from this form of mental illness, which is why he is struggling with a house full of crap now.

And this is sad, too, as what should be a happy time in his life - enjoying retirement and his inheritance, is going to be spent, instead, trying to re-live his parent's lives through their crap.  He will be dragged down by these nonsensical things, until it kills him.

Like I said, we all do this to one extent or another.   The key is to wake up and walk away from the material, and learn to live with less.  Buying a house so you can store your car - or boat, is nonsense.  And yet, many people do this.  And worse yet, they fill up that three-car garage with junk and then park their cars outside.  What is the point of all this madness?

Owning stuff is not a privilege or a treat, but actually a real drag.  For everything thing you own, you have to give up a small piece of your psyche.  And if you own enough, eventually, you lose your mind.  Just keeping track of it all and worrying about it will start to dominate your existence.  And the poorer you are, the worse it is.

Look around these poor neighborhoods.  Bars on the windows.  Chain link fences.  Mean guard dogs.  And for what?  To protect a $499 big-screen TeeVee.  What is the point of spending thousands of dollars on security to protect rapidly depreciating electronic appliances and crappy chain-store furniture?

There isn't one.  And yet more and more Americans are caught up in this nightmare.  Convinced that the crap they own is priceless and worthwhile spending thousands and thousands of dollars to maintain, move, and store.

Sometimes, it is better to just sell things and liquidate them.  My friend is already talking about putting his IKEA furniture into storage.  One month's rent will be more than it is worth!  Sell that crap to someone in your apartment building and move on.   Being attached to the material is a mistake - a HUGE mistake - in every instance.

Some folks find comfort in owning things - and find emotional security in having things.  This is all very well and fine, but I would suggest that you pick a few good things to keep and then sell the rest.  Moreover, while it can be fun to have things, having them forever is not necessarily as fun.  A car or boat, for example, can be fun, but disposing of them, when the fun is over, is better than leaving a rotting boat or car in your backyard.

It takes a long time to figure this out, or at least it did for me.  Possessions are fine and all, but are transitory things in your life - not permanent.  And perhaps we crave permanence as a means of defying death.  But it is a false God to worship, and death is inevitable.

For example, at the auto auction at Amelia Island, I once saw a fellow selling a 1968 Buick.  It was a nice car - not a particularly special model or option combination or anything.  But he had spent years restoring it to perfect better-than-new condition, and had it mounted on a display stand, so you could look underneath and see that every nut and bolt on the exhaust system was cadmium-plated and didn't have even a nick or scratch on them, much less rust.

What was the point?  The car became more of a talisman to him than a car, and he never drove it.  And as a restored 1968 Buick coupe, it was worth, well, maybe $20,000.  But the guy who bought it probably drove it, and didn't keep it on a stand.

Obsessing with perfection, obsessing with keeping things, obsessing with owning things - none of these are routes to happiness.  And the people I know who are pursuing these avenues are all in therapy, on anti-depressants, or are generally unhappy people, even if they are very wealthy and can afford lots of "things".

You can bankrupt yourself this way, too.  Buying and keeping a lot of crap not only monopolizes all your time, it takes away your money.

Just give it up.   Realize that many possessions - cars, houses, furniture, keepsakes, appliances, junk - will pass through your hands in life.  You can't keep them all for very long, and you can't take anyone of them with you.  Enjoy the times you have with them, and then sell them or give them away - or throw them away - and move on.

Life is so much more than having things.  And having things will prevent you from enjoying life.