My View

Aaron Keck: Stop, you’re stuffocating me!

March 1, 2014 

I’m loading up my car again for another trip to the thrift shop. This will be the third trip in the last two months, four if you count the two giant plastic tubs o’ literature I hauled to the Bookshop in December.

In a few days I’m going to call the Habitat Restore and get them to come pick up a bookcase. I have three now, so I’ll be down to two; the goal is to eliminate enough books that I can get it down to one.

I bought a new jacket right before Christmas, so I’ll be donating two old jackets to compensate. I just spent two weeks sorting through paperwork and files, so I could dump as much as possible in the recycle bin and get it out of my life forever.

Some folks are hoarders. I’m a purger.

And apparently I’m not alone. “We’ve had enough of stuff!” says James Wallman, author of a book cleverly titled “Stuffocation.” Once upon a time the accumulation of material possessions gave us personal pleasure and social status; but now, he says, it just makes us feel – well, suffocated. “Instead of feeling enriched by the things we own,” he says, “we are stifled and overwhelmed by them.”

Oh, how I know the feeling. By American standards, I don’t own much – my only furniture is a couch, a bed, a dresser and those two bookcases – but even so, there’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t look around and think, “Jeezum, how did I amass all these things?” (Though I don’t always use the word “jeezum.”) I breathe easier in empty rooms. I hang nothing on my walls. My bathroom is enormous – two sinks and a garden tub and enough room for a second bed –and it’s all wasted space. There’s virtually nothing in there. I love it.

And some take it even further. After the McMansion craze – man, don’t those houses look archaic now? – today’s hotness is the “tiny house” movement, with thousands of people downsizing into cottages no more than a couple hundred square feet. Imagine the convenience!

“Honey, could you pass the salt?”

“It’s right on the other side of the house, dear. Reach over and get it yourself.”

And of course the corollary of moving into a tiny house: you have to eliminate stuff to make it fit. I envy those people. I try to visualize being able to fit all my things into two hundred square feet. I’m not there yet. But I can dream.

Are you “stuffocated” too? Judging from the crowds at the thrift shop, I’d wager a lot of you are. (Yesterday the donations assistant actually got irritated when I walked up with another bin, not because of anything I’d done – I think – but simply because she didn’t know where she was going to put it all. There were already piles and piles, and piles.)

So welcome to the post-affluent society. “Post-affluent society” is a phrase with two (contradictory) meanings. On the one hand, we’ve grown so accustomed to affluence that material goods don’t give us any pleasure or status anymore. (Psychologist Daniel Kahneman famously argued that beyond about $75,000, more income has no real effect on our emotional well-being.) But at the same time, after five years of economic turmoil, we’re also no longer affluent – and all that uncertainty has made us rethink how attached we want to be to our things. If there’s a chance we might “lose it all,” better to have little to lose in the first place.

Besides, the affluent society was never meant to be this – well, affluent. The Protestant work ethic that laid the foundation for capitalism also denounced luxury. John Locke’s theory of individual rights provided a philosophical justification for accumulation, but he also insisted that people not accumulate any more than they could use. Even the supposed godfather of the “rags-to-riches” gospel, the novelist Horatio Alger, rarely made his characters rich: his heroes rose from rags to simple middle-class comfort, and lived happily ever after.

So maybe now that pendulum’s swinging back. In any event, it’s comforting to know there are others who feel as squeamish as I do about having too much stuff. That’s something I seem to be experiencing a lot these days, that feeling of being part of a sociological trend. When the poor academic job market drove me into another line of work, that was a trend; when my health insurance doubled last fall, that was a trend; when the affordable-housing crunch pushed me from Chapel Hill to Durham last month, that was a trend too. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but I suspect it’s generational: finally, the millennials are taking over the world.

But don’t worry. We’ll donate it to the thrift shop soon.

Aaron Keck is the evening news anchor at WCHL 97.9 FM in Chapel Hill. Contact him at akeck@wchl.com

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