Richard Kyte: What do the things in our lives say about us?
I am at the age when many of my friends are scaling back. They are moving out of the houses where they raised their children and moving into much smaller places, little bungalows, condos or apartments. But first they have to get rid of many possessions accumulated over a lifetime.
So, I’ve been thinking. Do I have too much stuff in my life? Would I be better off with fewer things? Would my life be simpler, freer and happier? Would I be able to give more attention to that which really matters? Would reducing the clutter around me also reduce the clutter in my head?
When I was younger, I didn’t want to have many possessions. They are a burden; they have to be paid for, stored and maintained. Material possessions can take over one’s life.
For the first several years of our marriage, my wife and I managed to have no more possessions than could fit into a midsize station wagon. But then children came along, and a house and furniture, and things to fix the house, and toys for the kids, and tents and sleeping bags, and fishing rods and lawnmowers.
And now we have a house full of stuff, and I keep thinking we need to get rid of most of it.
But what should go? That’s the difficult question.
A mirror on our bathroom wall has a large pink flamingo painted on the surface. It is indescribably ugly, but I wouldn’t part with it for the world.
It used to hang in the dining room of my grandmother’s house. She told me it was a wedding gift, one of the few things she salvaged from the turmoil of her life during the Great Depression. I think of her every time I see it.
Our house contains a handful of things passed down from my grandparents: the mirror, a pocketwatch, a bolo tie, a cookbook and some photographs.
None of them are useful, but they are important. If it weren’t for these things, I would think of my grandparents less often.
One of the commonly overlooked aspects of the material objects we surround ourselves with is that they not only say something about who we are — our relationships, our history, our tastes — they also change the ways we interact with the world. They influence how we think and what we do, and much of that influence is positive.
As I walk through the house taking inventory, trying to decide which things should stay and which should go, I begin to appreciate the different categories of things that have accumulated over the years.
There are tools, like pots and pans, screwdrivers, books, computers, appliances, paint brushes and musical instruments. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do many of the activities that are important to us.
There are clothes for work and leisure, for dressing up and dressing down, shoes and boots, and coats and hats. There are clothes for swimming and hiking and playing and sleeping.
Then there are decorative items, like paintings and photographs, curiosities and collectibles. They are visible expressions of one’s invisible thoughts and feelings.
The home is a picture of the soul. It is not a complete picture, to be sure. But the things people choose to surround themselves with say a great deal about what they give their attention to, what interests them, what they spend their time on, what they value.
When I walk into a house filled with drawings and paintings and the soft beauty of growing plants, I think: Here is a person who is creative, who is open to new ideas and possibilities.
When I walk into a house filled with toys and games and leftover bits of sandwich, I think: Here is a person who cares for kids above all else.
When I walk into a house that is perfectly arranged, with sparkling furniture straight out of a showroom, I think: Here is a person who seeks the approval of others.
When I walk into a house with few photographs of family or friends, no items showing something of their own history or personality, I think: Here is a person with shallow roots.
Such impressions may be mistaken, but they are no more than impressions after all, and as inevitable as responding to the smile on a stranger’s face.
I’m not sure there is any virtue in having fewer things in one’s life, but there is virtue in asking whether the things I surround myself with help me be the person I wish to be. Do they allow me to be a better friend and neighbor, do they help me live a life that is more meaningful or do they inhibit such a life? Do they help to focus my attention, or are they a burden and a distraction?
When it comes to the flamingo mirror, the answer is easy. It helps me be precisely the kind of person I wish to be. And who could possibly be distracted by it?