Accumulating Things Or, Then Again … Nothing

We read in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages: “Who is happy?” The answer: “The one who is satisfied with one’s lot.” But what happens when one’s lot comes to be measured by a lot… of stuff? I recently helped an older woman empty her very large (and stuffed) home as she prepared to move to assisted living. The sheer mass of her collection of material possessions made my head spin. Her home was replete with closets and storage spaces, shelves and unused rooms, all of which were packed. Yards of fabric, disused decorations, books and magazine clippings, three sewing machines and everything else you can imagine — enough to fill a 40-foot dumpster — and that was after the estate sale and the huge Free-Cycle giveaway, at both of which, deal-seekers lined up over a two hours before the doors opened. It gave me shivers to see people plying through every crack and crevice of the house seeking the item they imagined would garner an untold fortune on the “Antiques Road Show.”

At the estate sale, I met a man who was searching through a huge array of tools in the workshop. “What are you looking for?” I asked. His cheerful reply: “Oh, things that will be in my estate sale some day.”

What is the draw of the accumulation of material possessions? Matchbooks and paper bags saved from vacations made 30 to 40 years ago, old greeting cards, every scrap of paper obtained for any and every purpose, trinkets and souvenirs, even massive collections of photographs — almost all of which are either shelved and dusted without being noticed, or stuffed into drawers or boxed and stored.

For some, I think, the accumulation represents verification that one lived, or participated in life. Others take pride in being ready to supply any item that might be needed by a family or friend. Still others may simply procrastinate about clearing out — I am sure there are many more reasons.

I am not sure if many people still measure their value of an object, or book or piece of art or music by deciding if they would take this concerto or that novel to a desert island. Of all of the items the woman I was helping sorted through, which do you think she saved for her new adventure? I think that if she had her druthers, it would have been all of it but, in the end, she chose almost exclusively the items she used or saw every day, photos of her long-lost family, her genealogical research — and not much more. In the end, this was the “lot” with which she was most happy.

Little by little, I think, she may come to understand that all the rest was weighing her down with its very presence, as if each item, too, lived ponderously in the house, awaiting its time to be released from dark closets and placed in the hands of others who will put them to good use.

I read several years ago that there was, at that time, one 8-foot by 8-foot storage unit for every man, woman and child in the U.S., and I reason that the amount of available storage space has kept pace with population growth. I find that to be a remarkable contrast to the growing interest in small living — and causes me to wonder if those who attempt this feat of derring-do actually put all their stuff in storage awaiting the time they are ready for sprawling space.

While material possessions may bring comfort, they cannot bring peace, which is the most essential and sought-after desire in life. And whether we are neat or rat-packing apartment dwellers or sprawling suburbanites, it is clear that we will all eventually face the moment when the futility of the amassing of “lots” of possessions becomes undeniably clear. What is essential will vary from one person to another, yet the lesson that was reinforced in me as if it was flashing on a neon billboard: You can’t take it with you — not to a desert island — and not even to assisted living.



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