Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Who Am I Without my Stuff?

My paternal grandmother was born in Berlin in 1913. Her mother was Lutheran and father Jewish. Because of her mixed heritage, her family fled Germany in 1933. Her father was a serious antique collector and of the few possessions they managed to sneak out, there were a number of valuable antiques. They eventually made their way to my grandparents’ house, where I, as a young history buff, admired them. My particular favorites were a set of ornate Samurai sword blade guards (the disk between blade and handle) and some ancient bronze apothecary tools from Persia. When my grandmother died, I inherited these pieces.

Years later I was moving between apartments. I left my moving van unattended for roughly 45 seconds, and in that time, someone grabbed one box. Needless to say, it was the box with the antiques. Some people who were standing nearby saw the perpetrator moving down Amsterdam avenue and I followed. A few blocks away, I found the box. Everything was there except the antiques.

As mentioned before, I am moving to a compact home with my wife and child. In order to make this happen, we’ve had to ruthlessly edit our possessions. There have been the easy targets for editing, like the second can-opener we never got rid of after we moved in together. But as we continued, as we reduced our possessions to the bone, more difficult editorial choices arose. Suddenly, we’re contemplating letting go of mementos, old photos and heirlooms. We began to wonder if by letting go of these things, are we letting go of our history and even ourselves?

I’ve asked this question to many friends and answers vary. Most err on the side of keeping some stuff, as it acts as a binding agent to our pasts. One friend in particular says that when he handles stuff that once belonged to his mother, it rekindles his memory of her. No stuff, no memory, no history, no connection.

As for me, I have come to consider the great antique heist a blessing. At the time, they were the only things I cared about. In fact, I would have said that the thief could have stolen everything but those antiques, and I would have been less disappointed. And yet, once gone, they were not missed. Subsequent moves have been easier. I have been slower to take on more stuff, even “valuable” stuff. I still feel deeply connected to my past and grandparents, but my memories lack accessories.

While I find being largely stuff free liberating, I also understand why others would not. I understand my friend’s desire to have a physical bond with his past. Nor is this a black or white issue: you can have a few precious items and still live simply in a smaller space if you choose.

But there is a bigger question: does our stuff have the ability to shape who we are and inform us of where we came from? Or is it just stuff–perhaps older stuff, but still stuff? And if this stuff doesn’t accord with who we want to be and the way we want to live, should it be subject to a thorough edit?

Let us know your thoughts in our comments section below.

Old Compass Image Via Shutterstock

  • Rob Davies

    We have been through a ruthless decluttering as a result of radical downsizing here in the UK. Here are our 3 criteria:
    – William Morris’s …never have anything you know neither to be useful or beautiful…
    – Will we ever really use it again in our lives?
    – If not, will the children, when sorting through our possessions after we are gone cherish the fact we didn’t get rid of it?
    There is in fact very very little i our lives that have an affirmative answer to these questions if asked honestly.
    Rob Davies

  • George Sears

    Maybe you have watched American Pickers? Old people with acres of rotting ‘stuff’? Some people clearly cannot let go. But it is an age of the computer. When you put your life in ‘the cloud’, you still have it, but is it stuff? To me, IF there is a generational shift about cars, that is, if cars stop mattering, there will be a tsunami of change about stuff. This attitude toward ‘stuff’ almost has to work on a massive scale, or it is meaningless. The whole streamed, friended, online world can’t be a supplement to the 50s-90’s American Dream, it has to supplant it, if you want fewer physical objects. The real question is whether the next generations have a massively different perspective about what ‘things’ matter. (For me?I once emptied a 1400 sq ft house in Vegas, keeping only what fit into a 5 x 5 foot storage locker. I wanted to live in a truck camper for a while, moving around. I was fine with it, at the end.)

  • bensmagginolia

    I once thought stuff was very important to my life and who I was. 12 years ago I got sick (im fine now), lost my job, my house, my car and a lot of my stuff. I had to move into a super small apartment and put a few things in storage for a few years till I got on my feet again. antiques were everywhere in my house. I called a dealer I knew and she brought a few others to go through my house and buy the majority. I kept only a few pieces of furniture that were important to me but were also sturdy and lasting. I did cry at first but downsizing worked well for me. I walked away with very little and realized how happy I was to be rid of it all. I now live in a wonderful little apartment (490 sq ft) and everything I kept has its place. I gave most all the family photos and heirlooms to my grown kids and kept only a few photos of my parents and grands for the good memories. I just gave the last family piece to my nephew to give to his granddaughter when she turns 16. a ring my gram gave me when I was 16.
    I now realize stuff is just that….stuff. pass it on.

  • jottman

    Nice piece! As someone who runs a website called, I’m the first to profess to owning less stuff. But I draw a line at family heirlooms. If we didn’t save –even revere — our past, we’d have no museums, no repository of the ‘stuff’ that tell us who we are, where we came from, and hence where we might be going. There’s something very special to me to wear my mother’s engagement ring, enjoy looking at my own grandfather’s pocket watch. Again, it’s a matter of where one draws the line. There’s good stuff and the stuff that’s not worth saving.

  • Kelly

    This doesn’t entirely resolve thus issue for me but I have really enjoyed using household items that belonged to my grandmothers. From one I have a sewing basket and from the other a potato masher and a sifter. I am glad to have useful “heirlooms” rather than objects on a shelf.

    • sigrid

      I also have several items I inherited that I use at home: my great-grandmother’s silver thimble that fits my finger perfectly because I wear the same ring size she did, a darning egg to repair socks, and an egg beater that works beautifully and requires no electricity. If the keepsake item is practical and saves resources through repair and reuse as well, why not hang onto it?

  • Karen Bil Ratzlaff

    I don’t have too many inherited bits and bobs, but one of my favorites is a pin that belonged to my great, great, great grandmother. It’s not valuable and I don’t wear it, but against all logic I love owning it and knowing it will be passed along to one of my daughters. Other things I have been able to get rid of and it’s felt good and right.

  • Jean Tom

    Your article makes a very good point…most stuff is just stuff, the valuable stuff is linked to a fond memory.

  • Susan

    My solution, albeit less tactile, is digital snaps archived on an external drive, and finding loving homes for the family treasures. This has worked well for music, too. And photos. By all means, keep the useful items that enhance daily life, and perhaps a collection of small items (jewelry??). Passing down the heirlooms to the next generation has worked well.

  • Ray Russell

    When my grandfather passed away he left me one thing. It was a 23 jewel gold railroad pocket watch he’d bought in a pawn shop during the depression. It was left to me because I was his only grandson and because when I was a child I’d lie my head on in his lap, over his pocket and listen to it tick as I fell asleep. It was stolen.

    For a very long time I would become angry when I thought about losing it. But, I still have the memories of my grandfather. I don’t need a trinket to be reminded.

  • heather

    I have had to mull over this issue also. Five years ago we moved to London from the States and not wanting to have the tether of a storage unit, got rid of everything we couldn’t take on the plane. Mementos caused some hesitation, but in the end most went away. I wonder sometimes if I made the right decision, but it’s not because I want to look at the items. I remember the items and the moments that created them. I wonder if my girls would want to see them, but then they would only be things they would have to hold onto. I really like your “my memories lack accessories”. It made me smile. Minimal accessorizing is always best.

  • Lucy Gao

    This article reminds me of a quote from the children’s book The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince in French). “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

    We attach memories to stuff and then can’t detach ourselves from them. I think it’s fine to keep a few special items, and if they’re important to you then they should be displayed and revered. But if the items are tucked away somewhere in storage, then it’s probably best to edit them out. I’m sure once the items are gone, the memory will still remain.

  • Christina

    Having moved, almost 20 years ago, voluntarely from a biggish house to a smallish flat, was the first purge, it felt wonderful. And stuff startd to accumulate again; right : stuff has feet and wings and got into my flat all by itself;-)…..I bought two books on decluttering, right again, one was not enough ;-)….. And took a weekend course on decluttering in London…..I have been paring down and filling up in yo-yo fashion, with fewer filling-ups over the years.
    Another inspiration to pare down, other than that it feels so good and freeing: My mother died at the age of 95 last year. It was a night-mare to empty her flat! She had kept her grade school report cards, receipts of jewellery that her father had bought for her mother, jewellery I had not ever seen! I do not want my children and grandchildren to have to suffer the same nightmare ….. 2014 will be the year of the pared down edited life, the same I live when travelling ! I travel even for 6 weeks with hand luggage only, bliss!
    So, the edited pared down Zenlife will be bliss!

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