Stuff is stuff

I helped a friend clean out his mom’s house today.

She’s been in a nursing home for a couple years, after suffering from dementia. Before they found care for her, things had gotten pretty bad, and it was clear that she needed more care than either my friend or his siblings could provide.

But today, we went through her stuff, and that’s what I’m thinking about. Stuff.

We spend our entire lives collecting things. Scraps of paper. Little trinkets. Books. Clothes. Furniture. All sorts of things.

But do you know what we did with most of this stuff today? We threw it out, into a dumpster, where it will be hauled off to the county landfill, where it will be tossed in with a bunch of other people’s discarded stuff. Then it will be crushed by heavy machinery, covered with dirt, and time will take its toll, turning all of it back into decomposing matter.

That is it. The bulk of a person’s life, all the things they worked for, all the things they cared about, all the things they worked for and spent money on, will end up in a landfill, rotting until one day it becomes part of the organic makeup of the soil.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, and more often than not, it’s the same process. Family members go through some belongings, find a thing or two they’d like to keep. And almost all of those items are attached to a special memory.  The rest heads to the trash pile – or in the alternative, a sale of some sort to add a few dollars to the estate. But there are very few things, it seems, that one generation wants to keep from the previous generation.

Yet, here are some interesting numbers on the amount of stuff we own or consume.

  • The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).
  • The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually (Forbes).
  • Our homes have more television sets than people. And those television sets are turned on for more than a third of the day—eight hours, 14 minutes (USA Today).
  • Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).
  • Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on nonessential goods—in other words, items they do not need (The Wall Street Journal).

I suspect even those who try to minimize what they consume, over a lifetime, find that they buy and gather much more than they planned. I think anyone who has ever moved after living in the same place for a couple of years comes to face the fact that stuff has a way of accumulating in your life.

So, why this attachment to stuff when at the end of the day we largely just throw it out? I can’t really say I know. But I think the vast majority of us do it. And when we’re gone, our relatives will likewise go through our boxes of stuff and decide that most of it needs to be tossed out or sold to someone else. Whose family will one day do the exact same thing.

Maybe there’s a certain frugality to the whole thing. That once we’ve bought something, it seems silly to get rid of it. After all, we paid for it, and we have it, so why get rid of it now? Maybe we all have the thought that one day we’ll go through all these things and get rid of the things we don’t really need, but just never really get around to it. Maybe we have some attachment to these things – like they’re connected to a memory of a time, place, or person, and letting go of it would be letting go of the memory itself. I don’t really know.

But I know it’s an odd thing going through a lifetime of someone else’s stuff, and deciding that it doesn’t have a use, a purpose any longer, and that it’d be better to just let someone else have it, or simply throw it away. Necessary, perhaps. Sensible, for sure. But odd nonetheless.


3 thoughts on “Stuff is stuff

  1. Great piece Jason. Definitely stuck a cord with me as we go through my mom’s “stuff”. My mom never threw away anything….and I do mean anything. Going through boxes of my grade school papers, award, etc., has caused me to slow down and enjoy those memories. Seeing a pup tent that I used to sleep in when we went camping as a kid – the first formal dance I went to in junior high school was in a dress my mom lovingly made for me. It’s still hanging in my old closet at home. Perhaps that was her purpose in keeping all of her “stuff” over the years, to help us remember what a wonderful soul she was.

  2. Just spent most of March and April doing the same with my parents…it is an emotional experience and I understand the why on most of it. Still hard to do and no one prepares you for it. I think Sarah is correct…things left so that we are reminded…we do not forget. Thanks Jason…well done and nice to know you have not lost the touch.

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