It occurred to me today that life in 21st century America is pretty much centered on the management of stuff. Today, for example, my mother called me at work and asked me to stop by her house on my way home to pick up a couple things she had bought for me. I gratefully obliged and put the stuff she had bought me into my van. When I arrived at my house, I found my children’s stuff everywhere; my son and I spent half an hour just trying to get most of the stuff off the floor and into its proper room. Then I had to go to one of those “parties” where women try to sell more stuff to their friends. Since I had some stuff that belonged to one of my friends who was going to be there, I put her stuff in my van and took it to the party to give it back to her. Ironically, she had some stuff of mine that I’d left at her house, so we exchanged our stuff before we bought some more stuff from our hostess. When I finally got home at 9:30, my van was full of stuff – the stuff my mother had given me, the stuff my friend had brought back to me, the stuff I’d bought at the party, not to mention the stuff I’d brought home from work.
I’m really sick of stuff – spending money to buy it, finding a place to put it, putting it back in its place when it gets moved, looking for it when it gets lost, cleaning it and fixing it and finally getting rid of it when it’s beyond repair or obsolete. Sometimes I wish a tornado would hit our house (when we’re not in it, of course!) and suck up all our stuff like a gigantic vacuum cleaner so we could just start over with a clean slate. I’m sure people who have actually been hit by tornados would disagree, but it sounds lovely to me.
In the midst of acquiring, exchanging, and moving all that stuff, I began to wonder if it has always been this way everywhere. Did cavemen in ancient Africa have to manage stuff all the time? Did peasants in medieval Europe have to manage their stuff? Did pioneers in the American West? Surely those folks didn’t have as much stuff as we do now in these United States. Mass production hadn’t been invented yet, and the culture of consumerism was not yet cultivated. Still, our ancestors spent a lot of their time worrying about stuff too, I suspect. The cavemen needed to get materials to make tools and weapons to kill animals for food and clothing. The peasants had to work so they could trade for shelter, clothes, and food. The pioneers had to tned their farms so they could sell their produce and livestock so they could buy the things they needed to survive.
So I guess it’s not a new phenomenon – it’s just grown exponentially in the last hundred years. Plus, we have so much stuff we don’t need nowadays. Our ancestors’ main concern was the stuff of survival. Our great-grandparents probably had one-tenth as many clothes as we have. They had just enough dishes to serve the family; just enough linens to get by. Many families had just one car. No computers with all the peripherals; no DVD players with a collection of 100 DVD’s; no cell phones, iPods, or digital cameras like the ones littering my family room. I’m sure most children didn’t have the kind of cripplingly huge toy collections mine have today.
Is there a way out? I really don’t see one at the moment. Personally, I make it a point not to buy anything unless I know exactly what I need it for and where I’m going to put it, but I still wind up with ridiculous amounts of stuff! If I don’t buy it, people give it to us. At my son’s hairdresser today, they gave him a balloon, a cookie cutter and a sucker. His doctor gave him three stickers last week. He got another plastic toy in his fast food kid’s meal yesterday. I suppose it’s just an unfortunate side effect of living in such a prosperous society. I guess I could wish the country’s economy would collapse, but that would be like my tornado wish – short-sighted and selfish. Still I look forward to a day when I won’t spend most of my day dealing with stuff.