A few years ago, I faced my mortality head on. An unexpected allergic reaction nearly killed me. Up to that point I, like most people, hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about death. Sure, I’d done the unpleasant task of making a will and other estate arrangements, and I’d buried a few relatives. But my own death was still an abstract concept. I knew it would happen but I managed to convince myself that it was a long way in the future. And, like most people, a part of me secretly believed it would never happen at all. (Don’t laugh. Most people have a little piece of themselves that believes they will be the one to cheat death. Self-preservation at its finest, I guess.)
After the allergic reaction, I am wide awake to the fact that I’m going to die. I’d like to think it’s a long way off, but I know now that there is a very thin divide between being alive and having fun one minute and being dead the next. After I got over the shock of that reality, I found my relationships to money, people, and stuff changing. No, I didn’t become one of those people who started spending excessively on travel or other things because “I might not be here tomorrow.” In fact, I started to feel something of the opposite, especially when it came to material things.
I realized the saying, “You can’t take it with you,” is very true. None of the stuff that seems so important to me today will matter once I’m gone. It will just be junk that someone else has to dispose of. What I love and value will just end up in the landfill or in some estate sale. Or, it will be stuff that I have to deal with when I need to downsize or move into a nursing home. At some point, my stuff and I will part ways and there’s nothing that will go with me so there’s no point in getting attached to piles of stuff.
Once I had that liberating thought, I started thinking about stuff very differently. Once I realized that my stuff is really someone else’s junk to clean up, I found it started to matter less to me, too. It is, after all, just stuff. Sure, I like my collectibles, things I’ve carried from my childhood, family heirlooms, and other things, but what gives it value is all in my head. Someone else won’t feel the same way about it. They won’t know the stories behind the things, which is really where the value in stuff lies.
As a result, I started disposing of a lot of my stuff and being very cautious about what I bring into the house in the future. I’m making sure that the stuff that matters most to me is going to people that want it. Family heirlooms are going to cousins (since I have no siblings). Some things are going to charity. I’ve sold others and used the money to travel. By getting rid of it while I’m still alive, I’m able to control where it goes, to keep the stuff that others in the family may want out of the landfill, and to enjoy the proceeds from any sales.
I’m also buying way less. In order for something to come into this house these days, it either needs to be necessary or something that I’m going to enjoy and want for a long time. Things that are cute but have no purpose are no longer purchased. Things that I can borrow or rent are no longer purchased. Things that I can’t imagine wanting to deal with ten years from now are left on the shelf.
I don’t live to upgrade things like cabinets, counters, or appliances, either. That’s just surface appearance stuff and when I’m gone, no one is going to care that my counters weren’t granite. Least of all me. Give me stuff that does the job and I’m happy enough. Whoever buys my house after I’m dead can do what they want with it.
My goal isn’t to live a Spartan life, or to live with outdated, ugly furniture, but to live with the reality that stuff doesn’t matter in the long run. In the long run, it becomes garbage and I don’t want to surround myself with a bunch of junk. I don’t want to waste money on things that are only appearance related. I’d rather spend the money on things like travel, experiences, etc. Those are things I can enjoy now and that someone else won’t have to clean up or fight over. It’s also stuff that I won’t mourn the loss of when I’m on my death bed or when I have to go into a nursing home. Stuff is stuff and I’d rather not have a lot of it. I’d rather spend money and time on things that really matter to me and which make a difference in my life.
Once you face your own mortality, you’ll probably find that stuff matters less to you. You’ll likely value the people around you and your experiences more than stuff. And that’s probably as it should be. We spend so much of our lives fretting over what we own and how it all looks. And that’s a waste because, in the end, none of it matters.
(Photo courtesy of A.M. Kuchling)