Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Throw your stuff away!

It’s amazing how a simple task can suddenly illicit absurd thoughts.

We were cleaning out our home office the other day. We go through probably 50-60 books a year – both for work and pleasure – that span all kinds of topics and disciplines. And so if we don’t go through our bookshelves every once in awhile, we’d be buried by them.

So, as we usually do, we went through them and pulled out books we thought we’d never look at again, or that weren’t all that good to begin with, etc., etc… We put them in a box, which we then donate to the library or sell at the local used book shop. We usually have no problem filling a box with thirty or so books.

We always have a good feeling after we do this. Usually, we also clean out our files, too – we are old school and still maintain actual newspaper clippings and the like – filling up a wastebasket with paper. We feel somehow rejuvenated and clean, like stepping out of a shower. It feels good to get rid of stuff.

And then we had the sudden urge to throw all of our books out… Really, we wondered, what does it matter that we keep any of this stuff?

It doesn’t matter – and it shouldn’t matter, to the absurd man.

We didn’t do it, but we were tempted. There are practical reasons to keep them, we told ourselves (perhaps in lame justification). We make our living here and ours is a working library for the most part, though there are books here whose mere spines gazing back at us, inspire.

But we thought to ourselves if we lost it all, we could and would get on just fine. And so it brings us to an important absurd point – to shun attachments, and not just material things either. It could be ideas or a sense of personal meaning.

“Our attachments are our diseases,” Henry Miller said. And he was right. It is these things that need care and feeding. They require our attention. We wrap our sense of self and surrender our equanimity when we invest in things, physical or otherwise.

This is quite a challenge for most people.

Thoreau warned long ago when he wrote it would be better if men never inherited houses and barns and land. For these things become chains. It is hard to live merrily and without care when you have these things that demand time and money and management.

Or as Tim Krieder humorously puts it, many of us fall victim to “the usual tragedies: careers, marriage, mortgages, children.” Not that the absurd man can’t do or have any of things… it’s just his mental attitude toward them is different. There is a sense of detachment.

We like what Picasso once said, “I want to live like a poor man with lots of money.” This is to say, he wanted to be relatively care-free with his money and he didn’t want to fall for the trap of having lots of things make demands on him that he would otherwise not entertain.

Tom Hodgkinson, the editor of Idler, writes approvingly of this idea: “This unmaterialistic attitude can be achieved on any income. What we need is not to care. How I love people who don’t care, those free souls, the bright of eye...”

And, we add, those absurd men…


  1. Yes, I find myself simply borrowing books more and more from the library and taking my own notes . . .

    With respect to keeping the books, I always enjoyed this gem from Richard Gregg (Quaker):

    "Mahatma Gandhi and I were talking about simple living, and I said that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, 'Then don't give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired."


  2. A few years ago my house was broken into while we were on vacation. The thieves must have known when we were coming back, because they apparently stayed in the house a couple days and took virtually everything with wheels (bikes, cars) or a plug (computers, stereos, TVs, etc.).

    This turned out to be one of the best things ever to happen to my wife and I. We only replaced about 1/3 of what was stolen (and probably should have replaced only about 1/10).

    You don't own your stuff - your stuff owns you (if you let it).