The house is burning. Smoke is curling around everything you have ever owned, ever wanted, ever believed mattered. That picture of the person you love, the dog’s favorite toy. The couch where you held each other when you cried. All on fire, blazing. The garbage that needed to be taken out yesterday goes up as easily as the receipt you saved from the first time the two of you had breakfast together.
Every object you love and treasure will soon be ashes.
Now, given the chance, what’s the one thing you would take out of the burning house?
French author and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, when asked this question, said, “I’d take the fire.”
This statement has always stunned me. It’s clean and sheer genius. But I’m nowhere near that smart; removing the cause of the problem would never occur to me because I’d be too busy grabbing for things.
Would I save the map of Asia, printed by Scherer in 1700, or the second-century glass figurine from Kashmir? My mint 1967 Fender bass, made of wildwood—dye injected into the tree while it was still alive? The teddy bear I bought my wife the day after our honeymoon, that bear who traveled with us around the world for years? Or what about the books? We met working in a bookstore; the loaded shelves said who we were better than anything else. Travel, philosophy, science, the kid’s books. Us. Or would I grab the Vancouver Item, which means nothing to anyone but me, to whom it means everything?
How could I choose? How could anyone ever possibly choose?
But then, quite suddenly, I knew. Cocteau was right. Every day, our houses are burning and we are running back in, unable to escape, caught forever in the deadweight of our possessions.
And so the only sane decision is to, quite simply, take out the fire.
I just decided to take out a different fire than the one he meant.
Nearly all of us are owned by the stuff we think we own. Over the past couple of decades, average house size in the United States has doubled, while family size has decreased. In what may be the single most frightening statistic of modern times, 72 percent of the nation’s economy depends upon retail binges. Add up the square footage of places to shop in this country and you get a space of roughly 245 square miles, four times bigger than Washington, DC. This is the square footage where people spend over $2.25 trillion each year—more than the entire gross domestic product of Germany. The employees of those temples to useless plastic objects would make up the population of the sixth-largest state in the union. And let’s not even bother to talk about the credit card debt racked up on pashminas and pull-toys.
According to the Bible, “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,” and an old No Fear ad campaign says, “the one who dies with the most toys still dies.” But instead of heeding this simple wisdom, we continue filling our pockets with rocks and walking, quite happily, into ever deeper water.
The Buddha laid it out pretty simply: Desire causes suffering. Attachment causes suffering. And, of course, in the perfect words of George Harrison, “all things must pass.” And all this stuff we buy tends to pass in garage sales held by children who’d rather get on with their grieving than sort through what their parents “treasured.”
In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim wrote, “Whatever touches the sacred carries with it the sacred,” and I believe that. But where does the line get drawn? I have every love letter ever written to me, but do I also need my old vinyl albums when I no longer have a turntable? The beach stone my dearest friend gave me goes everywhere with me, but why, for 20 years, have I kept those wooden in/out boxes I never use?
With so much stuff, how does one ever remember which bits really matter? Or does any of it matter? There’s confusion between need and desire.
Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of possessions in our house, I could no longer rest. No room for thought. The sacred was buried under the mundane, every surface covered, but somehow, more and more things kept coming in. And yet we were not unreasonable in any way: we simply had an average middle-class house, with a nice KitchenAid and a good stereo system.
Then I read Ernest Shackleton’s account of his particularly nasty 1916 trip in the wild seas around Antarctica. He and his men were in an open boat, hundreds of miles from rescue: “Many things regarded by us as essentials at that time were to be discarded a little later.... Man can sustain life with very scanty means. The trappings of civilization are soon cast aside in the face of stern realities, and given the barest opportunity of winning food and shelter, man can live and even find his laughter ringing true.”
The idea, when it came to me, was simple and perfect, as elegant as removing the fire.
“What we do,” I told my wife, “is for everything new we bring into the house, we get rid of two old things.”
And my wife saw the possibility instantly.
I have a Masters’ degree in Religious Studies, but what I spent years learning, I think, can all be summed up in the Buddhist idea of Right Action. In this very moment, this instant, what’s the correct thing to do? We can never truly make any other choice. “The universe is where you are at this moment,” writes Brad Warner in Hardcore Zen. “The most important action you can possibly take is what you do right now.”
So my wife and I began emptying the house, two items at a time.
We did not require exact equivalence. If one of us bought a new CD, that didn’t mean two old ones had to go—unless that was what made the most sense. What we really sought was a kind of balance of moral weight. A new CD required, say, donating a couple of pieces of nice clothing that hadn’t fit in years but might again some day, or perhaps a Christmas gift or two that was never what we’d wanted, but was kept to honor the giver. Get rid of some of those souvenir mugs. Bringing in something large—for instance, a new computer—required a considerable sacrifice: a couple of first-edition and highly valuable books, or a pair of chairs that were comfortable, but too big for the living room.
And the house became lighter. And lighter.
At first, it was easy. We gleefully cleaned out closets when new magazines came in the mail; we headed to the used bookstore with boxes of old paperbacks when we needed to buy new shoes.
Then it became a little more complicated. After a year or so, we were down to things we thought mattered, things we thought we could never part with.
But what do you do? You’ve made a deal with yourself. You can only act right now. A promise is a promise. When you know you’re going to have to toss two things, each decision about adding a new thing into your life has an extra weight: If I get this, what at home can I spare? And if you can’t think of the trade-off you’re willing to make, well, problem solved right there.
Want to save money, stick to a budget, get rid of the credit cards? Throw stuff away. That easy.
My relationship to the things in life changed completely. Not only did I realize how very little I needed to bring into the house, I saw how very little of what was in there was actually, to use a perfect word Stephen King invented, needful. Standing in a store, getting ready to buy another thing, counter to the training of culture and 40 years of television commercials, the decision to walk away became quite easy.
As the house emptied, two by two like a reverse Noah’s ark, for the first time in 25 years, I cut my hair. I didn’t really need that as much as I thought I did, either. It was how I defined myself: “tall, long hair,” was how I’d described myself since high school. But, just like in the house, my wife and I were finding out who we were when we weren’t surrounded by videotapes and odd sculptures and things to put other things in I needed to find out what I was like beyond the easy self definition.
And as I learned as a kid when we moved every few years and my father threw out everything we’d gathered since the last move, in the long run, you don’t end up missing very much. In fact, it’s much easier to leave your hands open than to make a fist to hold something tight.
Here’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard. A Russian bear escaped from the circus. The bear had been getting depressed, and the trainer had tried everything to cheer him up. The trainer tried special treats, toys. Nothing worked. The bear got more and more depressed, hardly able to even raise his head for a fresh fish.
Then one day, the bear was gone. Escaped. Vamoosed.
Absolute panic at the circus. A bear on the loose. Local villages would be terrified; the police would come in; and this valuable, much-loved animal, could easily end up hurt or dead.
But they found the bear a couple of days later. The bear would have made a clean getaway, never been seen again, except he was sticking to the roads. The bear had chosen to make his escape on the bicycle he’d been taught to ride.
And so I look around the house, a house in which every single thing has been deliberately chosen, every single thing has gone through my hands and I have made a conscious decision, yes, this is needful, and think again: All this is about to be ashes. What’s still standing between me and escape?
Edward Readicker-Henderson is a travel writer and frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, Sierra, and Art & Antiques.