I was talking with an island dweller who recently rode out a major hurricane. The Island took a big hit with a 14 foot storm surge, 120mph winds, and torrential rain. In the aftermath of a storm of this magnitude, a significant amount of the residents' possessions were destroyed. Large piles of rubbish, that only days before had been coveted items of ownership, were now stacked into curbside shrines by the awesome power of Mother Nature - or more appropriately, monuments to our insatiable appetite for mindless consumer spending.
Household items were scattered everywhere, removed from houses in their owners' futile attempt to salvage what they could by drying out what the mold and humidity had not yet claimed. My friend remarked in amazement at the sheer quantity of "stuff" everyone owned. It seemed unimaginable that people could squeeze so many things into their living spaces, once you saw the entire inventory on display. Everyone on his block had a treadmill! Most looked brand new. Everyone was armed, and spray-painted signs on fences that warned of the dangers of thinking this was a self-service yard sale. Possessions are possessions, even if they are worthless.
But it is not just disasters that bring this clutter loving consciousness to the surface. How many times have you moved and asked yourself, "Where did I get all this crap?" In some insidious manner these physical objects gradually take over of our lives. Do we own our possessions or do they own us?
My first summer between college years, I moved to a beach community. There was a man there I encountered frequently who I thought was homeless. I'd see him on bus benches always wearing the same clothes. Leaves stuck in his hair gave him the appearance that he had just awakened from sleeping on the ground in a park. Sometimes I would see him wandering around town. Clearly he had no job. One of the locals branded him a casualty of the 60s who took too much LSD and never came down. His brother, who lived in town, took care of him, making sure he had food and clothes.
One morning as I was running along the beach, I saw this semi-homeless man. He had dug a large hole that cut him off at the knees when he stood in it. The locals had assured me that the man was harmless, and there was no need to be afraid of him. I noticed he had a long stick, and he was drawing something in the sand. My curiosity got the best of me. I decided to stop by and see what he was so busy creating. Upon approaching I introduced myself. The man looked up and smiled warmly. He had been absorbed in the task of drawing stick figures with the greatest of concentration. I did not wish to appear rude, so I pointed at one of the stick figures and complimented him on how realistic his drawing looked. The man proudly smiled and informed me this was a portrait of his brother. Then the smile slowly faded and the man shook his head sadly and said, "It's too bad about my brother."
"What happened to him?" I inquired gently.
"He has a house" came the simple answer.
"He has a house?" I repeated, not sure I was following the line of tragedy.
"Yes," the man replied thoughtfully. "My brother and I used to do things together and go places. Then he got a house, and now the house needs him to do things. He does not do things with me anymore, because he has to do things for the house, and he cannot go anywhere with me because the house has him." The man continued to shake his head sadly. "I will not go into houses," he said with resolve. "Because once you go inside... that's it... the house has you! It will always need something, and that's how 'it' gets you."
I never had the opportunity to talk with the beach artist again, but thirty years later, I still cannot forget our conversation. Through what many might label a distorted perspective, this man conveyed a clear message with gravity and insight.
I have reflected back many times on that brief encounter on the beach and wondered where I was allowing the possessions in my life to own me. It has occurred to me over the years how interesting and revealing our use of the word "possession" is. How many of us allow our lives to be possessed by our homes, cars, or boats? God knows the women from Sex In The City were clearly possessed by their shoe collections. But this is a human issue, not a gender issue. I have seen men possessed by everything from their baseball card collections, to their garages full of tools, to the love of their life - their car.
Perhaps there is a blessing within catastrophes such as floods, earthquakes, and fires that force an involuntary purging of possessions. Thoreau offers words of wisdom for those who may find themselves unwillingly separated from a lifetime of property that they have worked hard to amass: "As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness."
Another unexpected gift of finding oneself materialistically stripped naked is the opportunity to revaluate what is truly important and valuable to us. To consciously update what we want to surround ourselves with and to reconsider what is authentically worth our investment. As the great Oscar Wilde once said, "We know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
For those readers who may be piecing their lives back together after an unexpected loss, may I leave you with one more priceless non-material gift from Thoreau: "There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself"... and to my semi-homeless beach buddy out there, wherever you are, may you continue to be as free as the day you were born.