This morning, I went for a training hike with my full pack through the woods near Montebello, Quebec, in preparation for my upcoming three-month hiking trip to Europe. I say ‘training hike’, but it was really more of a walk to make sure there wasn’t something obviously wrong with my pack or gear. I hike regularly enough that I don’t feel the need to practice hiking prior to leaving for a longer adventure.
I like the feel of the pack on my back. I frequently get a giddy feeling knowing that I can carry absolutely everything I need in order to live a happy life. Keeping the weight down is important if I want my knees to last me a lifetime, so only the most important things make their way into my pack. Inside my pack, I have a mobile home – my tent – which is my sanctuary wherever I choose to place it. I have a sleeping system, a cooking system, and items to keep myself clean, healthy, and safe. I carry clothing to protect me from the elements. I even have items to stave off loneliness (my phone) and to provide entertainment (my Kindle). My pack and contents may only weigh about 22 pounds, but they’re everything I need to enjoy a beautiful life.
I have more possessions than would fit in my pack, of course. But not a lot more. And eventually I’ll have to give up all my possessions. I just have to decide when.
There was a time I owned lots and lots of things. I had a lot of stuff. Stuff that filled a 3,000-square-foot house, including the garage. I had always been happier with less, but somewhere along my life path, things got carried away, and suddenly I discovered that I was spending my limited free time taking care of my stuff instead of doing what I loved most. This isn’t unusual if you think about it. I was working as a senior officer in the military and there was an expectation of the type of home life such people would live. All of my colleagues had big houses. And they all spent their free time taking care of their homes and possessions. Weekends were for mowing the lawn, pulling the weeds out of the flower beds, and cleaning the house. A big home was, and still is, a reflection of how successful we are in our profession.
Eventually, though, I couldn’t take it any longer. The cognitive dissonance between my lifestyle and my nature was too great. I slept poorly, and eventually in the wee hours of the night, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the ‘bonus room’ windows like a caged tiger. My identity was completely wrapped up in my job, my home, and my lifestyle. It wouldn’t be easy to let it go.
Before my grandmother died, I had a chance to visit her in a seniors’ home in Ontario, where she was a resident. She lived in a small room. I marvelled at the few items she owned – clothes, a bed and dresser, some personal items, framed photographs of loved ones. This was quite a contrast to the home I visited frequently as a small boy, a home filled with lots of stuff designed to support a family of six children. I looked with wonder at her things in her small room; these were the most important items in her life. When the volume of everything she owned needed to be reduced to fit into a small room, these were the items she elected to keep. It was fascinating.
When I returned home, I wandered around my house with an eye to keep only those few items that were so important to me that they could fit into a small room. What I discovered is that I didn’t have an attachment to any of them. Except for some clothes I needed for work and leisure, I didn’t have a need for any of it. So when the time came, I got rid of it all.
It didn’t happen overnight. I still hung on to the better part of a book collection for a few years, and I still dragged the five boxes of trophies around with me wherever I moved. The books, I thought, provided me comfort. When I was in their presence, it felt like I was hanging out with old friends. But, like relationships that have run their course, I eventually gave up the books – from nine full bookshelves down to six, then down to three, then down to one, and eventually, the most important books in my life fit into a small box.
The trophies were more difficult to give up. They were part of my identity as an athlete, representing a lifetime of achievement, mostly as a soccer player. I ran the idea of getting rid of my trophies past my old-timer soccer buddies, who were, ethnically, from the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. They were aghast. Why would I want to do such a crazy thing? “Dave, think of your children and grandchildren!” they pleaded. “Those trophies are part of your family’s heritage now. You can’t possibly dispose of them.”
They made a good argument. And frankly, my ego revelled in its identity as a soccer player. It was a great feeling to command respect as a goal-scorer, to frequently receive the handshakes of competitors and teammates for a job well done on the soccer pitch. It was a great feeling representing my country on the military national soccer team. But in my heart, I knew I was playing just for the love of the sport, not for the accolades and trophies. The greatest joy would always come from making a good play, from slipping the ball between two defenders to lay up a shot for a teammate, from making a particularly good shot that fooled a goaltender. And those bits of joy would be retained in my memory. In the end, the trophies were just more stuff that needed a place to live and that required regular dusting.
But to be sure, I laid out all my trophies on the floor and invited my daughter to decide if I should keep any for her. We talked about the trophies that represented more meaningful accomplishments, but in the end, we opted to let them go. We took pictures of them, and then I stripped them of their nameplates and donated the trophies. Eventually, the pictures were lost too, so the accomplishments are now in our collective memories.
In Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, he talks about a schoolteacher whose cancer was so advanced, she was only given a few months to live. On one of his visits with her, she was distressed because her wedding ring, which she wore every day before she got sick and which once belonged to her grandmother, was missing. The ring was important to her. She wondered if a caregiver had taken it and if she should phone the police. Eckhart told her she was free to do what she liked, and then asked her a few questions: “Do you realize that you will have to let go of the ring at some point, perhaps quite soon? How much more time do you need before you will be ready to let go of it? Will you become less when you let go of it? Has who you are become diminished by the loss?”
The questions are good to consider, even if we aren’t on our deathbeds. How much of what we own is wrapped up in our identity? How much are we holding on to in order to satisfy the ego? We will have to let go of our stuff eventually. So wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of it on our own terms?
Over the years, I’ve gotten rid of many personal items, things that once were important to me, but no longer contributed to my life. I don’t think I’ve been diminished in any way by the loss of those items, and I’m no less of a person because those items are no longer in my life. As far as I can remember, I haven’t regretted disposing of anything. Contrarily, I’ve enjoyed a wonderful feeling of freedom from giving up those possessions.
I don’t have as many things as I used to have. But I still have some things I don’t use that are dear to me, such as a few choice books, an Albert Einstein bobblehead, and even the 381-square-foot apartment I’ve owned for a year but have only lived in for three weeks. Eventually I’ll give them up, but I’m not quite ready yet.
How about you? When will you be ready to give up your stuff? Are your possessions still adding value to your life, or have they somehow over time begun to enslave you? Have a look around your home. If you only had one room in which to fit your most important things, what would you keep?