Our Sense of Belonging(s)

My wife and I just returned from visiting our families in Florida during our annual migration to thaw out from the winter weather here in Tennessee. It was a good trip overall but not one without its own need for relational thawing. Suffice it to say that while we may be part of our respective families, we do not always feel extremely close to them. Linda was the late arriving baby in her family and I was adopted into mine so each of us occasionally feel like outsiders at a party to which we were belatedly invited.

Adding to our sense of detachment in life is the radical downsizing we embarked upon a few years ago, whereby we not only sold our beloved home but the bulk of our possessions also. We may not regret the move but it has been a monumental one nonetheless, a fact often downplayed or dismissed by loved ones. Despite giving many of our very favorite items to family and friends, some fail to appreciate the act of sacrifice it represents, no matter the love behind it.

Belonging can refer to a possession or a feeling and I think the two are interrelated. As Lucinda Fleeson writes, “That’s why we call them belongings, because they give us a sense of belonging to something when we’ve left behind one life and have no compass to guide us through the next.” Belonging is in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and as such serves as the link between being and becoming. Here physiological and safety needs may be met but self-esteem and self-actualization hinge on one’s sense of belonging.

While our stuff is not meant to define us it may yield clues to what we find meaningful. Oprah Winfrey popularized the term “favorite things” and thinking about ours can be a helpful exercise in identifying what we value. For example, what would you try to rescue in the event of a fire? Or want to pack on a dream vacation? Or be marooned with on a deserted island? All of these are ways of selecting some of our favorite things.

I created a digital file of pictures representing several of my favorite things in addition to a thorough inventory of all our belongings. The process was not only a fun exercise, but also helpful preparation for an emergency. Many people do not even realize all they own and therefore often buy unnecessary duplicates of things, only adding to their accumulated clutter. But once you identify what belongs in your life and what does not, whether people or possessions, you are better positioned to move forward in your life, both physically and emotionally.

The Sharing Economy

According to a new study by Havas Worldwide titled “The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy,” about 80% of people polled globally agree that progress is not about consuming more but consuming better and more than half say they could live happily without the majority of the things they own.

The report calls “collaborative consumption” the next wave of consumerism and states, “a new economic model is emerging—one that focuses less on ownership and accumulation and more on community and collaboration.” Two-thirds of the total sample believe society would be better off if people shared more and owned less.

The bottom line is that many people are gradually realizing it is becoming more about access than accumulation, especially for big-ticket items like houses and vehicles. As a case in point, my wife and I lease both our home and automobile, freeing us from the weekend routine of lawn mowing and car washing, since both are included.

And without kids or pets tying us to a particular place we are in a position to explore a location-independent lifestyle. Americans claim to dream of a home to call their own and my wife and I lived that dream, but since counting the overall cost and selling our extra stuff to become more mobile we are realizing how fun an untethered life can be.

Unplugging to Reconnect

Author Alain de Botton said, “Journeys are the midwives of thought.” My wife and I recently returned from a roadtrip to Florida during which we saw our families and thawed out at the beach, and it got me thinking. I turned 50 earlier this year and, while I turned down an AARP membership, I am mindful of my stage in life and that none of us is getting any younger, no matter how hard we try to maintain our youth.

On our journey south, we had the pleasure of visiting not only with family but also with several friends that we hadn’t seen in the year since we last visited Florida. Most are our age or older and some had experienced health issues during that time, even severe ones. My dad turned 90 at the end of last year and has had his challenges, including surgery to remove a cancerous growth. All in all, our loved ones are fine, but this life is temporary.

The other day I saw a poster that captured this very sentiment: “All that we called our own, as it turns out, was borrowed.” Not only are our lives not our own yet gifts from our Maker, but all of our stuff is on loan also. Yes, all of the stuff that we strive so hard to obtain, maintain and retain…it is all temporary, people. The only thing that remains after this life is over is our spiritual being and our relationships with other people. That is it!

As I am writing this on the one-year anniversary of my mother-in-law’s passing, I can’t help reflecting on her godly heritage and the gracious gift she gave me in the guise of her daughter. I am grateful to God for her and glad that she is enjoying her eternal reward. As for me, I enjoyed a special time visiting with my mother the other day, a chat into the late evening as a result of my inadvertently unplugging a cable, wiping out the television.

To place this event in its proper perspective, it is important to understand that for talking to replace television in my parents’ household practically takes an act of God, so it was no minor miracle that my mother and I had the opportunity to catch up with one another and discuss things that would never have arisen if the television had been operating. Perhaps the moral of the story is that we must unplug in order to reconnect with what matters.

Enough Is Enough

There is a story that author Kurt Vonnegut once informed his friend and fellow author Joseph Heller at a party that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 [which sold more than 10 million copies] over its whole history. To which Heller was said to respond, “Yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of enough is: “occurring in such quantity, quality, or scope as to fully meet demands, needs, or expectations.” What that looks like for each of us depends on our own specific situations but it is probably safe to say that the answer lies somewhere shy of where we think it does.

The tell tale sign that we Americans don’t think we own enough is our national obsession with shopping. For example, the average American makes 38 trips to a mall every year, spending an average of $83.30 per visit, or $1.01 per minute spent at the mall. And with an Internet connection we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our homes to rack up the debt, which Americans do to the tune of $8,000 on credit cards alone.

Referring to the iconic World War II era Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom from Want,” David Kamp writes in Vanity Fair: “It was freedom from want, not freedom to want—a world away from the idea that the patriotic thing to do in tough times is go shopping. Though the germ of that idea would form shortly, not long after the war ended.” Wherever we are on the consumer scale we need to try wanting less and enjoying the bounty that is ours. Enough is enough.

Sedentary Stuff Syndrome

I read the other day about a phenomenon called “sedentary death syndrome,” the chronic condition caused by sitting too much, which contributes to all sorts of ailments. The antidote, the article suggested, was simply to get moving, and that is good advice. Moving, in all its forms, has a way of helping us shed the excess in our lives, whether it is bodily weight or the weight of stuff.

As I’ve posted here earlier, my wife and I adopted the motto of “minimize to mobilize” during the process of paring our possessions in order to move as frequently as we liked. But whether or not that is your intention, you can benefit from living with less stuff. I share about our journey in an article titled “Is Your Stuff Holding You Hostage?” in the latest issue of Facts & Trends magazine.

As one reader commented, not everyone is interested in mimicking our mobile lifestyle, but the point I mean to make is that we can all benefit from living lighter, whether or not we opt to go mobile. For the dozen years preceding our radical downscaling we lived in the same house in the same town and so our stuff gradually grew to pack our humble abode. As much as we strived to live simply, our lifestyle became a sedentary one by virtue of our not moving every couple of years or so, as we had before building our house. Minimizing stuff helps you maximize life and avoid sedentary stuff syndrome.

The Touchstones of Our Lives

I was reading a southern lifestyle magazine at the bookstore today and came across a thought-provoking article titled “Stuff, Sweet Stuff” by Julia Reed. And she shared a term I had all but forgotten: touchstone. According to the dictionary, a touchstone is “something that is used to make judgments about the quality of other things.” In other words, it is a sort of measuring stick by which you value your stuff relative to other stuff.

For example, when my wife and I radically downscaled our stuff in order to live more lightly, we very intentionally waded through our things, weighing whether or not each item deserved a valued place in our final collection of treasures. Things like my college diploma and picture of my grandmother made the cut while my golf clubs and tennis rackets did not. I quit playing both sports but the other items were touchstones in my life, mementos that I valued enough to keep toting on my journey.

As Reed writes: “For me, home is where you find the touchstones of your life…But I’m actually a bit of a vagabond—I just need to know I can take my nest with me when I go. And that’s the thing about touchstones: Unlike a house, you can take them with you. After all, generations of Southerners have made a semi-profession out of toting around and lavishly tending to family heirlooms and prized possessions—though that’s not exactly what I have in mind.”

Dispossess to Possess

At church yesterday the pastor suggested that we “dispossess to possess” our respective promised lands. According to the dictionary, dispossess means to “oust (a person, even oneself) from a dwelling or position.” And that describes exactly what my wife and I did a couple of years ago when we liquidated our house and furnishings to explore a more mobile lifestyle.

This conjures for me the image of a hand that cannot grasp something new until it lets go of the old. And it captures what I think is holding a lot of people back from realizing their dreams and possessing their promised lands. Many people talk about doing something special with their lives but hesitate to walk the talk because it means they’ll need to let go of what’s holding them back.

If there is one faulty belief that limits people from experiencing more of what they want it is the fallacy of “having it all.” If you are among the disillusioned, settle it once and for all: It is not attainable, or at least it is not sustainable. People may achieve some measure of it short-term, but it will eventually unravel over the long-term. The “goods” life does not necessarily equate with the good life.

It’s not that stuff is bad; it simply won’t satisfy your soul. Here is an example from my own life. I own several “i” products from Apple, including an iMac, an iPod, an iPhone and an iPad. As much as I enjoy using them to create and consume cool stuff they are not the “apple of my eye.” Naturally, that place is reserved for my wife, and supernaturally speaking, Jesus Christ has my heart.

Only when we keep things in their proper place can we prevent them from possessing us; and it is only then that we can enter our personal promised lands. Whatever it is that you aspire to attain in your life will likely require you to let go of the good in order to achieve the great. Remember: the adequate is archenemy of the excellent, and you will never regret letting go of the former to lay hold of the latter.

The Story of Stuff

In about a week my wife and I are moving and, as our new home is only a couple of blocks away, it will be the shortest move we’ve ever made. But the other thing that helps make the move low stress is our shedding of so much of the stuff that makes toting and transporting boxes necessary. We can fit everything we own in a couple of carloads and love the liberty of living so lightly.

Not everyone is so inclined. According to the Self Storage Association, there are about 50,000 self-storage units in America and one in 10 households currently rent a self-storage unit. Total rentable self-storage space in America is now about 2 billion square feet or about seven square feet of self-storage space per person. That is enough for every man, woman and child to stand simultaneously under the canopy of self-storage roofing.

And an association study shows that 50 percent of renters now simply store what doesn’t fit in their homes—even though the size of the average American house has almost doubled in the last 50 years to 2,300 square feet. And about 25 percent of customers told the Self Storage Association they were storing items that they no longer need or want.

However, according to Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff, “A growing movement of people in the United States and internationally have chosen to opt out of the relentless treadmill. This approach…involves embracing a shift toward working and spending less. The focus is not on doing without, but on enhancing nonmaterial aspects of their lives, which they believe—and evidence supports—are greater sources of happiness and security anyway.” Amen.

Living the Edited Life

One of the guiding principles that my wife, Linda, and I have used on our journey of simplicity is an adapted version of the Pareto Principle, more widely known as the 80/20 Rule, which for our purposes simply states that 80% of stuff is used 20% of the time and 20% of stuff is used 80% of the time. The goal for us is to get our stuff down to the 20% that we use 80% of the time, and we are basically at that point in the process.

Our rule of thumb for the last several months has been that if we haven’t used an item lately and/or don’t plan to use it then we give it away, either to someone we know or to a charitable organization. We have sold very few items, other than our furniture once we sold our house, simply due to the logistics of selling such as packing and shipping, etc. Besides, we’ve realized the benefits of sowing and reaping in each of our lives.

As Graham Hill said, “Editing is the skill of this century: editing space, media consumption, [even] friends.” That last one may strike some as controversial but the older I get the more I realize that we do indeed outgrow some relationships and that is okay. It doesn’t mean that we no longer like certain people; it simply means that a person may be part of our lives for a season. To that end, Linda and I recently went through our collection of paper photographs [as opposed to digital ones] and culled them accordingly.

What I’ve found is that the same skill needed to be an effective editor of words, which is my livelihood, also plays a part in paring life down to its essentials. Whether it involves limiting space, media or relationships, living the edited life means being selective about the space one inhabits, what media one consumes and yes, even the people one spends time with. The Pareto Principle is applicable across the board so it helps to deal with whatever it is that hinders us from realizing our full potential.