Thursday, July 26, 2007

Interim Report

It’s been 2-1/2 years now since we began our downsizing/simplicity journey. During this time, we have often been approached for advice by those who are considering starting their own journey. Usually these are seekers who find themselves in life circumstances similar to our own. They are parents whose children have left the nest, couples who feel the need to sell their large houses and move to smaller ones, and individuals who feel their years of acquisition have not brought them the happiness they had hoped, and who are looking for more peace and simplicity as they live out their remaining years.

After much thought, here are the lessons we have learned, and the advice we would give, looking back on our 2-1/2 years of change.

Something is worth only as much as someone will pay for it. This goes for a house, books, collections, furniture, and everything else you have accumulated for the last few decades. Usually the first thing you do when downsizing is try to sell a lot of your stuff. This may result in a great surprise, as you know what you paid for the items, and can become quite disappointed when you realize the great disparity between what you paid for something and what someone else is willing to pay for the item now. It doesn’t matter that you paid $50 for that book. If someone will only give you a quarter for it, that’s what it’s worth. The lesson from this? It’s a much better plan not to buy the stuff in the first place than to try to sell it once you have bought it. I know - easier said than done. The accumulation addiction usually wins. One way around this is to give away more things than you sell. The pleasant feeling you get from being generous is much more a boon to your attitude than dwelling on the unfortunate fact that you just sold a $50 book for a quarter.

When you start emptying your life of “things,” your first step is to determine your priorities. I knew, for instance, that my collection of quilt books was staying, if I had to stack them in corners up to the ceiling. I knew that my Lincoln books were staying, and also books that had been gifts to us. But every other book was on the bargaining table. That was one of the hardest things we have done - getting rid of hundreds of books. The only way we could stand it was to imagine that we were releasing them into the world to be enjoyed by others.

Some people have a hard time with this step. To be successful, you really have to rethink your idea of ownership. In truth, we own nothing. We are stewards, and we keep things for a while, then pass them on - to family, friends, and even strangers. When this mindset takes root, paring down your stuff gets much easier to tolerate.

Even when you manage to divest yourself of much of your possessions, your new home may still be smaller than you think you need, and you might wonder desperately what on earth you have done, and how will you ever cope in such a small space. At this point, it would be nice to have the magic beaded purse in the just-published Harry Potter book. It is described as a very small purse, but because it was magic, it could hold anything - tents, furniture, swords - anything. Alas, that’s only fiction. When we first decided on a house plan for our new smaller house, the whole family warned me that my designated sewing room/office was not big enough to hold all my fabric, much less all my fabric plus a big roll-top desk, ironing board, quilt books, sewing machine and serger. I insisted that everything would fit.

It didn’t, of course. But wait - we have a basement and attic!

Hold it - that’s another potential hazard in downsizing. You know how it works: If you pay off a credit card but keep using it, you will find your balance will work its way back to its former high number. In downsizing, you may actually be able to fit your newly trimmed-down possessions in your smaller living space, but if you have access to an attic and/or basement, diligent focus has to be maintained so you don’t abuse those spaces and end up with more stuff than you want in your life - again. It can happen insidiously, and you won't even realize it.

In our divesting of possessions, we found it was helpful to adhere to the goal of getting rid of everything that was not useful, meaningful, or beautiful. Keep things that you need and those that add beauty or significance to your life. The idea is not to live sparsely (although that can indeed be a valid purpose for some people), but the idea is to live abundantly on less. That takes extensive thought and planning and a lot of important decision-making. It also forces you to define the word “abundant” for yourself, expanding it to encompass more than a simple physical meaning.

We also received some surprises, of course. We were astonished to realize that we don’t miss TV much at all - which is amazing for a couple who used to sit down every night and watch TV for hours.

On the downside, a less welcome surprise is how slow dial-up Internet is, and how frustrating it can be. I would say that is my major irritation - making a dirt road, lack of a garage, weak cell phone signal, and other rural deprivations seem minor in comparison.

All in all, it has been a fulfilling experience for us, and we are very content. I highly recommend the challenge - and it is an ongoing challenge, never quite finished, because temptations to keep buying and acquiring will always be there. You might be able to take some steps toward simplicity if you still have children at home, but I imagine it is much harder to be successful at it in that scenario. I think, though, that at some point in the cycle of life, you might get an internal nudge that a major change is in order, and it is at that point, simplicity is calling. When the kids start college and/or move out on their own and/or get married and start their own families, then you might sense it’s time. When the house just seems too big or seems to demand too much upkeep or financial investment, you might sense it’s time. When you feel smothered by the stuff you have accumulated, you might sense it’s time. When you find items that you have purchased but never used, you might sense it’s time. When a certain birthday rolls around and you want to reexamine your life, you might sense it’s time. When you realize that you could start sharing some of your possessions, you might sense it’s time. When you become conscious of how much of earth’s resources we as a nation use compared to the rest of the world, you might sense it’s time. The time is different for everyone, but sooner or later, if the urge strikes and won’t let go, heed the call for quality over quantity. I guarantee you that eventually it will spill into other areas of your life, not just the things you own, but the food you eat, the time you spend, and the value you assign to everything and everyone in your life. It is then, whether through a sudden recognition or a gradual awareness, that you realize you have started what will undoubtedly be one of the most remarkable journeys of your life.


Anonymous said...


Cuidado said...

I've just learned a lot. Thanks.