Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Letting go of possessions

Very recently I was traveling overseas and had stored a lot of things in my brother's backyard shed. While I was away a great flood came through the area and a lot of my things were badly damaged. In particular, many of my favourite books were ruined.

Now for me a book holds something of a sacred virtue. I know this sounds nerdy but books have been the doorway to so much pleasure, learning and insight that I place them on a sort of pedestal! So of course I was upset. I grilled my brother over the phone. Exactly which books had been damaged? How badly had the water affected them? Were they still readable? I ruminated about the whole thing for hours wishing that I had made a different decision about where I stored my stuff, blaming myself for being so stupid, wondering if my brother could have done something more to have saved them.

Then it occurred to me that most of the books I own I haven't read for years and yet I dutifully haul them from house to house whenever I move. Moreover I have dusted and sorted them, and made room for them in my sometimes small living spaces. Really I was better off without these books!

The other thing I realised was that many of the books I own help me create an identity that I use to present myself to others. You know how we gravitate towards someone's bookshelf when we visit them for the first time? How we judge their character by the titles they own? Well I wanted other people to be impressed by the books in my shelf, to think of me as a certain type of person: a serious-minded, intelligent and spiritual person with a wide range of interesting hobbies. Many of the possessions we own are used for the same purpose: to impress those around us in some way, to present to the world a persona that we think of as an ideal. For example we may want others to think of us as wealthy, or stylish or unique; in all these cases possessions can provide a means of demonstrating this persona to others.

Image: Copyright Petr0.

So beneath our attachment to possessions often lies a deeper attachment: the need for others to approve of us, respect or like us. And this attachment ties us up in even more knots than the first! When we are attached to the good opinion of others we are forever afraid that our mask will slip, that we will ultimately reveal who we really are and that this 'real' person will not be good enough. Moreover by creating this identity with our possessions we cut ourselves off from others and this can lead to feelings of separation, loneliness and alienation.

Letting go of possessions can be liberating not just because we now have less things to clean around, dust, move, organise and tidy, but also because by letting go of these identity props both we and others will see us more clearly. This is not so scary as it might sound: in fact life becomes simpler, we become more genuine as human beings and we move closer to the truth of who we really are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

true. materiality is annoying