How Getting Robbed Saved Me from the ‘Culture of Stuff’

I got robbed.

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But don’t fret! What follows here is no invitation to the pity party, nor some ill-disguised plea to drop what you’re doing right this instant and send more stuff. Quite the contrary, in fact, considering the cardboard boxes scattered around my room, dusty remnants of a different me.

That sounds dramatic. But it’s the truth, laid bare, and the kind of realization that couldn’t have clicked until someone broke into my house and decided to fling stuff all over the floor. My stuff. Mountains of it, far more than anyone could ever plausibly need, but it was my property, people, and some of it was missing.

There, wading deep into the mess of my room, it hit me: holy hell, I have a lot of crap.

The knee-jerk reaction was anger. The later, more measured response was a blind rage, an itching to shout and stomp that didn’t fade until I sucked in a big breath and stopped to survey the damage. And there, wading deep into the mess of my room, it hit me: holy hell, I have a lot of crap.

I almost laughed. Not the normal reaction, sure, but there’s the kicker, the wake-up call shining like the (not stolen!) lamp toppled over at my feet. Ready for it?

I got robbed, yeah. And I’ll tell you why it was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me.

Man Alone in an Empty Room
Alone © elward-photography

Cue the Introspection!

Think about it. Seasoned travelers, well-accustomed to long stretches on the road, often go about their business with little weight attached: the contents of a backpack, ideally, plus whatever knickknacks pop up along the way. Does this make for comfortable living? Nah. But this no-frills existence invites an entirely different approach to life, one that puts emphasis on places and people over things.

For days on end we live with a smile, building incredible adventures with little beyond what we can shove in our pack. And then we check back into society, stepping off that return flight and right back into the familiar culture of home. We come back to houses and apartments and mortgages and debts, walls and shelves sagging under the weight of the useless crap we accumulate during our regular, normal routine.

Put simply, we come home to stuff. And frankly, we need to cut this out. Don’t believe me? Take a count of the many innocent little items cluttering your desk. Add to that the number of boxes stuffed in your closet, and top that off with how many DVDs in your collection that you haven’t watched in months.

Got your number? Good. There’s no trick to this, really: whatever that magic number is, it’s probably way too high.

You dump most of it when you go traveling, don’t you? So why do you need it now?

$100K Junk Pile in Birmingham, Alabama
$100K Junk Pile in Birmingham, Alabama © Southernpixel

We’re All Guilty

The first sign, I think, was that brand-spankin’ new computer monitor dropped in a hurry by the front door. The second sign? The realization that a tornado had come crashing through my room in the few hours I’d been gone, spilling all my precious stuff to the floor. That’s a hard sight to come home to, for all the obvious reasons, but what followed managed to be even less thrilling: the arrival of the cops, nervous glances at the door, and reluctant calls to my roommates to describe in detail everything they’d lost.

Fun times, that. But what stuck in my mind long after that night was a single line given to the man with the badge: “Me? I just lost a monitor and some games. Got lucky, I guess.”

Lucky. Right. Looking at the colorful chaos in my room, the realization that I’d have to spend the better part of two weeks trying to put the pieces back together seemed like everything but a thumbs-up from the powers that be. How much time had I wasted already trying to keep everything tidy? Why did I have so much stuff in the first place? When had I managed to fill every inch of my closet and shelves with stacks of papers and boxes and clothes and … things?

That’s life, it seems — an endless parade of acquisition, the steady yearning to buy, buy, buy until the walls surrounding you burst at the seams. It’s a difficult cycle to ignore, even for those who’d rather spend every living moment on the road, but that little fact might make the change more important than ever.

Small Steps

Those dusty boxes now stacked in my room? Signs of progress, if you’ll believe it, visible proof of the push to free myself from the culture of stuff. The process hasn’t been easy — selling is way harder than buying — but the clutter is vanishing, slowly, fading like the memories of a room so cluttered I couldn’t see the carpet.

Cathartic? Definitely. Time spent organizing the endless mess is now time spent living, a change so simple and wonderful that the next step fell in line almost immediately: stop buying. That sounds a little extreme, I’ll admit, but putting it in practice warrants just a few tweaks — think renting versus purchasing, borrowing versus owning, and so forth.

You’ll need food, sure. And you’ll need clothing, transportation, and entertainment — and that’s fine. You don’t ask for much more than those basic necessities whenever you travel, so adopting a similarly lean lifestyle at home is half the battle. The other part requires a little digging, a few solid minutes of meditation on one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself: what do you need to live?

Not much, I promise.

Here’s the obvious hint: you don’t need stuff. You need friends and family, memories and experiences, and a firm kick in the rear to realize that all of those are closer than you think. We might firmly associate each of them with travel. But even that attitude warrants readjustment, a reshaping to include a simple truth: the most amazing times of your life are waiting at home, too, if you’d just put down the stuff for one second and take a look around.

It’s easier than you think. Sure, it took a robbery for yours truly to realize it, but there’s no sense waiting for a stroke of bad luck to take your life into your own hands. Dump the stuff. Kick the crap to the curb, take a deep breath, and start focusing on what counts: three-hundred and sixty-five chances each year to live life to its fullest. The friendships and memories that naturally follow will endure far longer than anything you could find on a store shelf.

  1. I agree, we have too much stuff, much of which contributes to the consumerism of America. These are reasons why we live with debt and why we can’t ever escape our jobs to do something exciting. When we decided to travel around the world we were forced to go through all of our stuff and decide what to keep. We had a big yard sale and donated a lot to Goodwill. It was sort of refreshing in the end. But, honestly we still have tons of Rubbermaid bins full of stuff being stored in family’s attics. We are still traveling, and when we return home, I think we will go through everything again and get rid of more. At this point we actually do realize we don’t need much at all.

  2. wait til you have kids and they have stuff on top of your stuff. Then they go off to college and then leave their stuff behind. Everything from 3rd grade junk to crap from their senior year. Eventually, they will have to weed it out themselves and toss most of it, but if you touch it before they do, you will never be forgiven.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, Matt – there seem to be so many people out there for whom their ‘stuff’, far from making their lives better or more enjoyable, just holds them back from doing the things they really want to do.

    I actually wrote an article on this a couple of months back – it’s more of a guide to getting rid of unnecessary crud in your life, but the sentiment is exactly the same. :)

  4. This is a really moving piece to me. I just got rid of all my stuff a few months ago before I took off to travel on an open ended trip. The feeling of freedom once it was gone and I realised that I was going to be OK with very little that was left was life changing.

    I’m glad getting robbed turned into such a positive thing for you!

  5. Fantastic post, and so relevant to me right now. I recently decided to become as mobile as possible, both to rid myself of clutter, and to free myself up to travel at the drop of a hat. I’m so sorry you were robbed, but so pleased you were able to make such a brilliant change because of it.

  6. Great stuff! Sometimes you really have to purge to get a clean start. You were forced to do it. Right now I’m getting ready to sell my house and move to another country for a year. Whatever I keep has to go into storage, so I’m looking at everything with a very critical eye. I traveled for years with nothing but the pack on my back. So why do I need so much more now?

  7. How does travel souvenirs fit into this “culture of stuff”…

    Looking back at my tiny asian apartment, 90% is stuff that has and will be used at some point…I’ve done the whole move abroad thing already and dropped much of my stuff…..alot of what is junk I just sell or it gets used some day.

  8. Something similar happened to me. I placed all my things in a storage space for which I neglected to pay for correctly while traveling. Everything I owned was auctioned off to an unknown party. My initial reaction was anger and loss, but quickly this turned to deep relief and weightlessness.

    It was undoubtedly the most remarkable event that led me to my nomadic life.

  9. One of the best feelings of my life was when I moved from my hometown to Seattle. I got rid of everything I could as I was lucky enough to have a friend willing to drive me to my new home.

    I had five boxes when I moved, and it was liberating.

    Fast forward five years, and here I am with a similar pile of useless possessions. A storage unit to boot!

    As I start to plan my exodus from the norm, I realize how easy it is to accumulate things. I cannot wait until I can be free of all this once again.

  10. Good one. I have found that when I come back from a long stretch away from my homebase I see all my stuff that I haven’t used for ages and realise it is not as indispensable as I thought it was.

  11. I so totally agree. It has taken the economic downturn for me to reassess my life and re-prioritize. Why would my wife and I (and a 20 lb cat) need 300 sq ft, a pool, 3/4 acre, etc etc etc
    I decided that we need less stuff and more memories- that the career which consumed the 1st half of my life (hopefully I have another half yet to go) was not fulfilling- so into the travel business I dove.
    I love it.

  12. Totally agree. I think much of the developed world has been sucked into a culture of consumerism, where commercial actors have persuaded them that material excess will make them happy. Despite being the richest people in the world, those in western culture constantly look up to the excessively expensive lifestyles of pop culture figures such as actors and musicians, as if such riches and material possession would make them happy. People don’t appreciate that it’s EXPERIENCES that are of value to us at the end of the day, not the amount of stuff sitting on your shelves or the number in your bank account.
    Also, why should we own stuff anyway? Houses, furniture etc… it’s all going to outlive us, so what sense does it make that I should OWN it. What right do I have to say that something more immortal than me is mine and under my control? In modern commerce, I can “own” a plot of land, but given that this plot of land is eternal, and I will be dead within the next century, surely I am just a guest on this land. How can it actually be “owned”? The same goes for all my stuff that will still be here after I die. If it will outlive me, what sense does it make that I should claim that it is mine? Furthermore, when I die, my possessions are no longer of use to me- would my money not have been better spent renting or borrowing such items during my life, and spending the excess money on new experiences?

  13. I really enjoyed this piece, mostly because I’ve been going through this a bit myself. I used to live out of a duffle bag and now I live in an apartment full of things. I unpacked for the first time in years and realized I had settled into frame of mind where the most useless objects became necessities.

    I thought I was the biggest packrat ever – and then I saw my sister’s room in my parents house. Her room, two closets, the common area outside of her room, two bathrooms – all of them filled with boxes of her things! The boxes are full and yet the floor and every surface is covered with things.

    I realized I needed to put my things in perspective. I like being minimalist and trying to limit my number of possessions. But I also don’t need to have as much or as little as someone else. Just enough to get by.

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