We spend the first forty years of our lives enthusiastically accumulating stuff and the next forty trying desperately to get rid of the excess. The word “stuff’ uses the dictionary meaning of “household or personal articles collectively; belongings, worthless objects; refuse or junk.” Let that speak for itself.

As young adults we start out with old essays and cute stuffed animals. We quickly acquire cast-off furniture and household accessories donated by family and friends, gratefully accepting anything free. Weddings generate gifts, often in multiples; sometimes items we didn’t even realize existed. Once we have a place to live we head to our stores of choice, buying everything we’ve been told we must have. And we keep on accumulating until, one day, we realize that we have been buried alive, that too much of our time is spent managing stuff or just trying to find it. It may not be until a major life change or transition happens (and it will happen) that forces us to take action against our stuff.

Our relationship with stuff is like any other relationship; it must be managed and maintained. Newly married, beginning a family or as a new homeowner, you love your life, your home, and all your pretty things. You can’t imagine feeling otherwise. Middle age sets in, and then one day something shifts, and you realize that your relationship with your stuff just isn’t the same anymore. When this happens you have a few options to consider: you can settle and live in a dysfunctional relationship with your stuff for the rest of your life. You can unload it, remodel it, or replace it with new stuff. Or, you can downsize and break up with stuff altogether.

It is the desire to live an unencumbered life that many empty nesters are finding harder and harder to ignore. But, unencumbered is tough if you are, like most of us, freighted down with stuff. The larger your living space, the more you accumulate.

Bigger isn’t always better. There is a pervasive prejudice in our culture that more is preferable. That building up is preferable to scaling down. It is the same mentality that assumes that moving to a smaller place is a step downward, that having fewer luxuries makes you appear less successful as a person. The other thing to recognize is that scaling down does not mean renouncing your own style. It is actually a heightening of focus on the things you love and that reflect your essence. It means stripping away the clutter of what no longer fits or does not contribute to making your life easier. The sense of ‘home’ has nothing to do with its size and the sense of ‘feeling at home’ has nothing to do with the amount of stuff we accumulate. In fact, the ability to purchase whatever we want becomes a huge obstacle to understanding what really matters.

Though many of us fantasize about travelling around the world, carefree, with everything we own in one suitcase, our real lives and our relationship to our stuff are far more complicated. A bag lady can fit everything she owns into a shopping cart and travel light,

and yet most of us are afraid of ending up that way. We calm our fears by acquiring a cushion of possessions to reassure others and ourselves that that won’t happen.

In anticipation of a fresh start, one middle-aged woman living in New York held a massive auction on eBay and sold off virtually all of her stuff. She longed for the liberating feeling of unloading all of the stuff that she had been carting around for 30 years. ‘I didn’t need it, didn’t use it, I just had it all,’ she told cbstv.com. In fact, living this way, our stuff has us. When Mother Teresa died, the media reported that she left behind only a bed, a chair and a blue sweater. How wonderful to be so focused, to have only what you need and nothing more!

Moving into a smaller space unencumbered with stuff is a wonderful time to re-evaluate your lifestyle and redesign it to who you are now and how you desire to live, relax and entertain. If you still have misgivings about moving into what seems to be a confining space, try thinking of it as an investment in time, not in place. The more we get rid of clutter and its’ maintenance, the more we gain in time ~ our one truly non-renewable resource.

Article featured in Forever Young Magazine (Winter 2008)
and North Durham Senior Connection Magazine (Winter 2007)
Written by Sandra Wright