Ours is a culture obsessed with more. The pitch is that more clothes, more rooms, more closet space, more cars, more gadgets, more money, more food, more growth will make you better or happier. We are trained to fix our discontent, our dis-ease or even our sadness by acquiring. In the immediate wake of September 11th, George W. Bush literally told us to “go shopping.” Sure, the ostensible message was that we had to keep our economy going. But there was an underlying notion that shopping would help us heal. When the going gets tough, the tough buy stuff.
For most of my post-college adult life, I’ve lived in studio apartments, ranging in size from 200 to 1,000 square feet. Looking back, I don’t recall feeling discernibly less happy from lack of more square footage. In fact, I look back rather fondly on those decidedly more edited years. Simpler times with less mental overhead.
As I get older (I’m north of 50 now), I’ve watched many of my contemporaries acquire and accumulate more and more. Many of them had to upsize to accommodate their growing families, while others seemed to need more space to accommodate the virtual lint rollers they’d become as they accumulated more stuff with time, income and age: furniture, clothes, shoes, books, gadgets, gear, cars and other consumer detritus.
What is it all for? This quest for bigger and more? More square footage, the bigger car, the bigger closet to accommodate the bigger wardrobe, the growing #sexpile of expensive watches… The relentless grab for ultimate luxury and comfort, because everyone is a VIP in their own mind and entitled to all the trimmings. This is like the All-American fuck-off: check me out, bro… I have arrived… get a load of me and all my stuff, please observe with envy, and tap the ‘like’ button. Strip it all away, and we’re left with the ultimate in discomfort: ourselves.
After sitting still, exercising restraint and “underindulging” (a word that doesn’t exist, go figure), we’re only left with ourselves – a prospect that seems too uncomfortable, difficult and depressing for many. That, in itself, is depressing.
But we’re not supposed to be comfortable with ourselves. Quite the contrary. In the interest of making a profit by selling things, happiness and contentment are the enemy. Discontent is the spark that ignites the burn and yearn for something more, something bigger, something else. It’s all about what we don’t have, where we aren’t, with whom we aren’t. Discomfort or dissatisfaction with self and everything else is the kryptonite marketers have, telling us that we’re losers or less-than without the right car, the right watch or a full head of hair.
Don’t get me wrong: stuff is fun. I am, after all, an American capitalist and consumer, susceptible to many shades of envy and desire. Show me an issue of The Rake or a Tom Ford ad (or film) and I’ll show you a dozen garments, accessories or scenarios I’d like to dive into. I love a sick suit, a great pair of shoes, a beautiful bicycle, a fantastic apartment… lots of it. But who am I without it?
Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the things that money, power or any currency of one-upmanship cannot buy. Things that can’t be believably faked, stolen or even borrowed. Can I be funnier? Smarter? More interesting? More compassionate? More generous? A better listener? A better friend? A bigger blast on the dance floor? Hotter in bed? More worthwhile? Could I have more integrity? The answer is yes. And none of the shit I can acquire so that others will envy me will support that agenda. When I die, or when anybody dies for that matter, no worthwhile person is gonna say, “He had such great stuff.” (But a nod for having some flair would be appreciated.)
I have much work to do in all the areas I just mentioned and then some. When I find myself detouring to a retail grab in lieu of feeling a feeling, confronting a truth or stepping outside myself to help someone, it’s a red flag. There’s nothing wrong with a little retail therapy or comfort food from time to time, but I can’t let it define me or become my default evasion. And I can’t just pay lip service to these ideas. I have to put the words into action, which takes work and practice like all truly worthwhile pursuits.
In the interest of becoming a better man, that’s what I’m thinking about these days. I appreciate made-to-measure tailoring, a beautiful Eames chair or a nice Central Park view just as much as the next guy. But such niceties or the relentless pursuit of them don’t define me. “More,” as I observe, doesn’t mean “better.” In fact, the philosophy of design legend Dieter Rams grows increasingly appealing to me: less but better.
With two dogs, I probably couldn’t hack the 188 sq ft apartment I lived in from 2004 to 2009. But when I look back on those years, I don’t remember being unhappy. In fact, just the opposite. Living exponentially lighter, with less furniture and a rigorously edited closet, I was probably happier than I realized at the time.
Today, I live in a converted 370 sq ft hotel room with everything I own, including the dogs and all four seasons of my wardrobe, with nothing in storage awaiting a bigger home that I don’t have. Would I like a bigger apartment, perhaps with an actual bedroom and a real kitchen? Abso-fuckin-lutely. Am I miserable or even unhappy with the current arrangements? No. It’s about accepting the constraints and making it work.
While I certainly have goals and aspirations, I write this as a guy who’s currently unburdened, unencumbered and undefined by a lot of stuff. And I’m okay. More than okay. I’m happy.
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