Every year Americans throw out or recycle more than 250 tons of garbage. Only about 14 percent of this waste is food, meaning that the majority of our trash consists of stuff. Stuff we needed once and then outgrew. Stuff we just had to have in the moment but grew bored with later. Stuff we never wanted in the first place. Stuff that held other stuff, like water bottles or frozen dinner trays. Stuff that stopped working. We spend a great deal of our lives working for money to pay for our stuff only to buy more stuff when we tire of what we have. While I don’t want to become a “freegan” (a person who reuses trash), I do know that by staying conscious of life’s non-material joys and riches, I can free myself from the chronic dissatisfaction that comes with always wanting more.
This, of course, is a lifetime pursuit. Americans and our stuff go way back, and the relationship is tempestuous, emotional and complicated. Just look at the folks chronicled on TV’s Hoarders, a show that invites the so-called “normal” rest of us to gawk at homes that look like unburied landfills, homes in which the people’s stuff has displaced the people. We watch in horror and congratulate ourselves on being able to throw things away. Because it’s not that we buy less stuff than the hoarders; we’re just better at knowing when to say goodbye.
Although I’m not a hoarder, I hate to throw things away. This is partly due to overactive nostalgia and partly due to a deep concern for the environment. I feel guilty when I throw something out; in my head, I apologize to the earth. My recycling bin is larger than my trash can, and my compost bucket gets filled up every week. Not being able to recycle or compost an item I no longer want in my house feels like a personal failure.
Not only do I feel guilty about throwing things away, I also feel guilty about buying things. This has more to do with my financial state, though, than my environmental worries. Like many people today, my husband and I are in debt from a variety of sources (car payment, credit cards, school loans, mortgage), and the value of our house is barely more than our mortgage balance. As an adjunct college instructor, my income is never secure and my husband, while full-time employed at a comfortable salary with benefits, shares in the country’s collective fear of layoffs. Like many Americans, we do daily battle with our material desires and our means. Unfortunately for me, a decline in means (such as during the summer, when I only teach one class) correlates with a spike in desire.
How can I make myself want less? Sometimes I make a list in a small notebook of the non-material things I am grateful for: my husband, my family, my friends, a job I love and a satisfying creative pursuit (writing). A friend of mine begins family dinners with an alternate prayer of sorts: a list from each family member of what he or she is thankful for that day. Sometimes it’s the sunny weather or a visit with an old friend. These things nurture us, bring us daily joy, hold us up when our rafts of faith begin to leak. I consider these non-material items, foremost among them love, to be the essential nutrients—the whole grains and raw vegetables and proteins. Scoring a great-fitting blouse at 75 percent off retail also creates happiness, but of a more fleeting variety—like a sugar high.
My father once said, “There are lots of beautiful things to buy.” This is true, and I don’t think any of us should feel guilty for appreciating the sleek design of an expensive computer or the craftsmanship evident in a handmade piece of furniture. Material objects fill both practical and sensual needs; they make us feel safe and open portals to other places and times we have lived in or wish we had. But to chase these objects unceasingly is to invite a constant sense of craving in oneself, to become the addict who needs a little bit more each time to get the same gratification.
Lately, I’m spending more time paying attention to natural highs: feeling the spike of endorphins after exercise, stealing a glance of love at my spouse across a homemade dinner, watching my foster kittens tear around the living room in the throes of wonder and curiosity, hearing a student say she finally learned to believe in herself as a writer in my class. By living in this spirit, I’m not only happier, but I waste less, too. I help liberate the earth from the relentless cycle of consuming and throwing away, and liberate myself from the prison of always wanting more.
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