Your Identity Versus Your Stuff: Letting Go of Things to Find YourselfIt’s long been said that the things you own end up owning you. They fill our lives and take up space. We buy new homes just to accommodate all this stuff. How come it always seems like we’re getting more and more stuff? And why is it so hard to part with?

A lot of us have things in our house that we have never used, haven’t used in years, or have no use for to begin with. Oddly enough, we tend to avoid asking ourselves, “Is this thing important? Why am I hanging onto it?”

Of course, I have stuff on the brain. I’m packing my Brooklyn apartment to move across the country to California (as I described here). The trip is part of an emotional journey to see if it’s possible for a person to learn to be laid-back. I think letting go of a lot of useless items is a good place to start.

Logistically, there are two ways to move across the country. You can have your stuff take a long journey across the continent, which I’m sure Conan O’Brien and his family did when he left “Late Night,” or you can get rid of all your stuff and start fresh when you get to your new digs. Selling, recycling and donating your things is a great idea when you don’t have a lot. But if you’re not 25 years old, you’ve probably acquired some things you’re not ready to get rid of (e.g., the antique clock you inherited from your grandmother).

My husband and I find ourselves in both boats. We have a lot of worn-out things we’re ready to get rid of and a lot of other things we hope never to part with. So we’re weeding out unnecessary items and packing the others.

Parting with your stuff is definitely a lesson in being laid-back. You have to let go to the main reasons why we hang on to stuff to begin with:

  • We think it’ll be useful to us in the future.
  • It brings us fond memories.
  • We identify with the possession and don’t want to imagine ourselves without it.

I have to start asking myself new questions:

  • Has this been useful to me in the last year?
  • Is it too hard to replace or is it irreplaceable?
  • Is it worth the cost or hassle of transporting it across the country?
  • Does it really contain memories or are those already in my head?

I’m currently thinking like a pioneer, riding out to settle the West.

When you begin to purge books, socks, nail polish, and old blow-up mattresses, an amazing thing begins to happen. You find yourself underneath all that stuff. You discover what matters most, and it isn’t material possessions.

I’ve been giving my possessions too much credit. Most of them weren’t making me happier, they weren’t helping me lead the life I want to live, and none of them contained any magical powers. Not only am I a lot more than my things, I don’t want to be beholden to inanimate objects. These items don’t contain my memories and they don’t maintain memories — that’s the job of the mind.

For too long I believed that my possessions were part of my personal history, but in fact it’s just stuff I owned. When I look back at my life over the years, why would I care about stuff I owned?

I’m sure a lot of people look at their full bookcase or full closet and think, “But this stuff is valuable even if I don’t use it. I mean, I spent all that money on it.” However, a lot of things don’t have much of a resale value (especially books). You have to eat the expense and start looking at items as being as valuable as they are useful.

While scaling back, I’ve found there’s a great deal of pleasure that comes from giving things to people who may find it more useful. Many of my neighbors gave a lot of my old books as Christmas presents this year. And there’s always a charitable organization looking for housewares and furniture. As they used to tell me in Catholic school, “it’s a brick on your mansion in Heaven.”

Now I’m determined not to fall into the trap of buying more things to fill up my apartment or make me happier. Something tells me it’ll be easier said than done. It’s going to take a lot of reminding: Do I want to spend my life collecting, housing and lugging around stuff or is there more to life?