by Niall Doherty

The things you own, end up owning you.

That quote is from Fight Club, one of my all-time favorite movies. It sums up a lesson I first learned about six years ago, when I was stuck working in a department store in Ireland, having dropped out of college and dreaming of one day living and working in the United States.

Problem was, I kept making excuses as to why I couldn’t just drop everything and move to the U.S. Most of those excuses centered around material things. I owned over a hundred movies on DVD at the time. I also had a big widescreen TV, a Playstation 2, an Xbox and a nice desktop PC hooked up to a serious sound system. I knew I couldn’t bring all those possessions with me to America. What would I do with them?

For a while, I did nothing. I just stayed where I was, with all those nice things, holding me hostage.

Breaking loose

I’m not sure what triggered the change in me, but at some point I got fed up and decided to break loose from the shackles. I gave away pretty much all of those possessions and took off on my U.S. adventure. I thought I’d miss everything I’d given up, but instead I experienced an overwhelming sense of freedom. Nothing was weighing me down anymore, except the suitcase full of clothes I brought with me.

Then the airline went and lost that suitcase full of clothes, but I wasn’t bothered much. I’d already separated myself from my material belongings. They no longer defined me.

Beauty in decay

I got another lesson in materialism when I moved to New Orleans in 2007. Even though I had already come to realize that material things were overrated, I still leaned towards the new and the shiny whenever I needed to acquire something. But a few months living in the Crescent City changed that.

If you ever visit New Orleans, you’ll quickly find that most of the establishments here look a little shady and run down, the bars in particular. If I saw bars like that in Ireland, I’d steer well clear. But I came to learn that in New Orleans, you really can’t judge a book by its cover. A bar might look like a hell hole from the outside, but then you reluctantly follow a wise friend inside to find the place full of high-character people having the best of times.

After a while I found myself seeking out the dive bars and repeatedly shunning style in favor of substance.

When it came time to buy myself a wagon, I got a good deal on a well-used Jeep that oozed character. I called him Doug. The air conditioning didn’t always work and there were a hundred pins holding the upholstery together. A few months after buying, a taxi slammed into the side of Doug; nothing but superficial damage. I was delighted. Battle scars = more character.

A buddy of mine summed up that attitude quite well, noting that I’d come to appreciate “the beauty in decay,” as most New Orleanians do.

Irish recession

The recession in Ireland is real: Lots of job losses, cut-backs, broken dreams. But I see it being great for the country in the long run. Ireland had become much too materialistic for my liking. People had become overly concerned with big houses, fancy cars, the newest mobile phones and the like. You had to have two mortgages and go out on the town at least twice a week. Every child was getting fourteen different presents for Christmas, without truly appreciating any of them. People were admired more for what they had instead of who they were. TG4 was probably one step away from launching My Super Sweet Sé Déag.

A lot of that hasn’t really changed, but it’s starting to. People have no other choice now but to cut the fluff and get back to what’s really important.

Owning nice things

This post isn’t meant as a rant against owning nice things. Materialism is defined as “preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values.” So owning nice things isn’t the problem. Identifying with them is. I’m reminded of Fight Club again:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.

By all means, buy nice things, but buy them for their practicality more than anything. Art and decoration is fine, but let it be an expression of you; not an attempt to impress someone or make people jealous. Buy yourself that $3000 couch, but not when you can get a $500 couch that looks just as good, is just as comfortable and will last just as long.

How to be less materialistic

You start by making a firm decision. Be sure you actually want to be less materialistic first, then try a few things from this list:

  • Separate needs from wants. It’s perfectly fine to want stuff and to get what you want, but you should never confuse your wants with your needs.
  • Spend stretches of time without your material goods. See if you can give up TV for a week, or see how you’d cope without your car for a couple of days.
  • Never buy when you can borrow, and help other people out by sharing your own stuff. You’ll save money, reduce clutter and build trusting relationships.
  • Acknowledge the emotions that certain possessions stir up in you, and ask yourself why. Try to identify what parts of your character are lacking and how you might be using possessions to compensate.
  • Similarly, try to identify what possessions your friends might have that make you jealous. Ask why, explore that part of you, and try to improve on it.
  • Consider how you’d feel if you lost certain possessions. Would you be able to handle it? Could you do without that computer, that TV, those new clothes? What would you do without those things? If your answers scare or depress you, you know where you need to grow.
  • Be grateful for the things you already have, and express that gratitude regularly. A good way to do this is to write out three things you’re grateful for each day.
  • Go on cleaning/clearing binges to declutter your house. Zen Habits has a great article on how to do this effectively.
  • Request that people forgo giving you regular birthday/Christmas gifts and instead make donations to trusted charities.
  • Expand your social circle and try new things – learn to value experiences, relationships and memories over possessions.

Find your comfort zone

The most important thing is to find your own comfort zone with your possessions and your relationship to them. It should be a personal journey, different for everyone. Just be careful not to use material goods to compensate for character defects. Remember the words of
Evan Esar:

Character is what you have left when you’ve lost everything you can lose.

Some day you might wake to find you have lost everything. Hopefully you’ll still know who
you are.

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