Carole Carson: Overthrowing the tyranny of things
An essay written by Elisabeth Morris in 1917 on the tyranny of things so accurately reflects my opinion that I could insert it here and you would be none the wiser.
Morris begins by describing two teenage girls who have just met. One girl asks, “Which do you like best, people or things?” The response comes without hesitation: “Things.” In that instant, they bond.
Judging by the money and other resources I once allocated to things — from big-ticket items like cars and furniture to smaller items purchased locally (or on Amazon during the pandemic) — I shared their bond.
If I admitted a hidden truth — that the bulk of my time and energy was spent cleaning, maintaining, and repairing my possessions — then my choice of things over people was even more obvious.
I had slipped into the condition described by Henry David Thoreau in “Walden”: “Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”
In my defense, I was not the only one tyrannized by things. I knew people who stayed at jobs they hated for years so they could buy things. I knew another person who could not go shopping without coming home with a car packed with clothes and shoes, even though her closet was bulging and her credit card debt was mounting.
The pressure to acquire things seems relentless. Why else would the average American home contain 300,000 items? Furthermore, the necessity of giving and receiving things is reinforced by social conventions.
Dare I go to a birthday party empty-handed? Could celebrating this person’s life be enough? No.
Can I visit a friend in the hospital and bring warm thoughts of healing and affection without also bringing a small gift? Can I go to a housewarming party without a gift for the new owners? No.
And what would the seasonal holidays be without extensive gift giving? The amounts of time, money, and energy spent selecting and wrapping the perfect gifts are mind-boggling, and we repeat this process every year.
‘THEY POSSESS US’
I admit with embarrassment that I was a submissive subject to the tyranny of things. But no more. Along the way, I lost the passion to possess.
Perhaps it happened when I realized that joyful aging was inconsistent with spending the bulk of my attention, time, and energy on the care and accumulation of things.
I reached the point Morris described as “a day . . . when we begin to grow weary of things. We realize that we do not possess them; they possess us.”
Armed with this insight, I overthrew my oppressor and executed a revolutionary decision. At the end of three months, I had rid myself of most things except a few clothes and souvenirs. I sold my beautiful home and disposed of the furnishings, including two cars.
Most of my belongings went to family and friends. The remainder was donated to a warehouse in Auburn that offered free household items to people who were down on their luck.
The next step was a move to Montpellier in the south of France. Today, I live in a modest, furnished one-bedroom apartment near my son, his French wife, and their two children, about six miles from the Mediterranean Sea.
More than one of my friends questioned whether I’d regret making such a dramatic decision so quickly after my husband’s death this past April.
The truth is that I miss him terribly — he was my best friend for 30 years — but I haven’t missed a single thing that I parted with. Moreover, I feel lighter and freer, as if a heavy load has been lifted off my shoulders.
The few souvenirs I brought to France are treasured, but I won’t add possessions that aren’t essential.
Overthrowing the tyranny of things frees my time and energy to study French and enjoy the company of friends both old and new. It also gives me time to write and simply enjoy leisurely hours in the company of my extended family.
By the time you read this, I will be a month into my reinvented lifestyle. So far, this minimalist approach is working. But after a decades-long addiction to things, I may yet fall off the wagon.
I’ll update you on my progress or failures in the next column. (At least for the time being, I’ve persuaded the editor of The Union to let me continue as your French correspondent.)
Carole Carson, Montpellier, France, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. She can be reached at email@example.com
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