Living With Less: What Do You Really Need, And What Can You Let Go Of?

I used to have a friend who had a lot of stuff. She kept clothes long after she had outgrown them, books she never had any desire to read, even stacks and stacks of old magazines that she kept for reasons I still don’t know. When I asked her why she felt the need to hang on to everything long after its usefulness had expired, her answer was, After my mother died, the only thing I had left of hers to remember her by was one small jewelry box. When I die, I want things of mine around to make sure that who I am, and what mattered to me, is remembered.”

I am the quite the opposite of my friend. I lean more towards purging than saving. For most of my things, if I haven’t touched it for a year, I will sell it, donate it or discard it. I can be pretty ruthless with my things. Except for one thing – books! Books are like oxygen to me.

But even I was tested with just how ruthless I can be when a few short months ago, my husband and I decided to pack up our lives, with our two-year-old daughter, and move to a small beach town on the Caribbean coast of, Costa Rica.

With no timeline for how long we’d be gone and no idea when we’d return, we decided to sell or donate most of our possessions, and lighten our lives as much as possible. We figured that anything we needed upon return, we could buy again. But we didn’t want to hold on to things that we knew we could just replace.

Ok, I must admit that we did store a few personal belongings with family members. I couldn’t bear to part with my beloved little antique desk, and my husband couldn’t sell his favourite Justin Bua prints. But this exercise made us realize just how much stuff we had. By the end of it, most of our things were sold, donated or discarded.

When we first decided to move, my ruthless self foolishly thought, “Let’s just get rid of EVERYTHING!” But when I started to go through it all, I realized how difficult it was to part with some of it – especially my daughter’s things, like her first baby hats, blankets and shoes. I don’t consider myself to be a sentimental person, but the thought of losing these things forever just broke my heart.

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It made me start thinking about my friend who couldn’t let anything go for fear of being forgotten, and about our culture’s attachment to things – why it’s so strong, and what it means.

We live in a society where there are enough people who hoard so many material possessions that we have television shows about it. For them, it’s not just about “maybe I’ll need this one day” or “how will people remember me?” but they use material things to replace feelings of love, self-worth and companionship that are missing in their lives. People use these things to try to fill a void in their hearts. But it’s a void that “stuff” just can’t fill, which is why they keep collecting more and more.

We live in a culture of accumulation, a culture of “more”, and a culture of ‘buy, buy, buy’. We are inundated with advertisements telling us that we’re not good enough, we don’t have enough, we need this to have that and we need that to have this. We have been told that all this stuff will make us happy, but it’s never enough, and the small thrill of getting something new often fades before we’ve even taken off the price tags.

Like my friend, we hold on to things because we tell ourselves they mean something about who we are, or the people we’ve had in our lives. But what we are forgetting is that our things are not us, and they are not the people in our lives. They are just -things. And our thoughts, memories and love for others will still be there, even if these things are gone.

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I’m not suggesting that we all live a totally bare-bones kind of life. But maybe as a society we need to reevaluate what’s important to us. We need to ask ourselves what matters most? Is the stuff around us serving us or weighing us down? Are we keeping it because it is truly a necessity, or a sacred keepsake of a special person or place? Is this stuff freeing us, or just making us heavier and heavier?

By the time our move date arrived, my husband and I had let go of almost all our stuff. And one day when we are back in Toronto, we’ll probably accumulate a few things again. But next time, we’ll only buy what we need, knowing that we truly are able to live with so much less.