On holiday at Chennai in South India, my family was taking a break from military life away from the base. We were enjoying the morning cup of coffee as we breathed the early smells and sounds in the lawn. Then someone noticed that the car moved, and a few seconds later we realized that the cause was an earthquake.
Later through the day, the horror unfolding at the eastern coast of the city and further south began to unravel on TV. A whole Indian defense base in the Andaman Islands, where the officers' quarters were located on the seafront, was nearly washed away.
In the weeks that followed, we began to hear first hand accounts of horror stories as well as heroic deeds. Friends' complete families went missing, even as luckier ones found themselves and their near and dear alive days after the trauma. We were lucky to only be indirectly affected by this disaster. We were indeed lucky to have our lives.
The whole episode got me thinking on the value and quality of life.
In these days of ongoing environmental crisis, from Australian bushfires to Italian earthquakes to African droughts to island flooding and all manner of war, each of us could spare room for this thought, no matter where we live:
Do you really need a calamity to wake up and ask how much are material possessions important to you?
As you hurtle along to keep up with the Joneses and the Smiths, (or to stay a step ahead of them), you may not have had a chance to pause on your tracks and look around you-- at the seemingly valuable stuff for which you worked sleepless nights to surround yourself with.
You might hopefully reach a situation where you will be able to categorize them in one of two ways: priceless or valueless. Priceless would be for things you'd risk your life for, that would tear at the heartstrings to lose, and personally set you back if they went missing. Valueless would be for the frivolous purchases, the doodads, fridge magnets, and all manner of quirky electronic toys. It is an important difference to keep in mind.
If the fire was on your doorstep tonight, if your home was to be shaken or flooded or blown away, what would you really want and need to take with you? What do you need? What would be priceless?
From personal experience I can tell you each potential purchase after taking these questions to heart will be viewed with new eyes. You will easily come up with the right answer to Is that priceless or is it valueless? With the things you buy, what is likely to be its life after purchase? Will you really enjoy this stuff a few years from now, or even later on that day when you leave the store? More importantly, would you want to save it from disaster when life is at peril?
Ever since I started exploring these questions, it has been a pleasurable journey-- that head space helped inform and create the physical space around me. It was a ‘tangible de-clutter' for my life.
In my case, our family's experience resulted from a defense job that ensures we shift our home every two to three years. We use each opportunity to de-clutter. We've reached a stage when visitors often remark, "Is this apartment the same size as the next?", and are surprised by the answer "Yes." The ensuing comment "This looks more spacious!" is always a welcome compliment.
To each person in my family, less possessions means more opportunities for exploring several other interests (non-material, but not immaterial), each of which engages the mind much more positively.
To illustrate, suppose you had a choice: Great-looking pieces of evening wear (or electronics or stationery or fancy stuff) at rock-bottom prices available at your favourite store. Your wardrobe has zero breathing space.
Would you give in to temptation and buy "Just one more... after all, I deserve it."
Or would you say "no more - what I have is enough for me. Do I really need more?"
In the pursuit of instant gratification of all sorts, many of us appear to have left an examination of want/need somewhere far behind. When we're out in the shops, we fail to realise we're giving in to the urge for instant pleasure, that the novelty will wear away sooner or later.
Questioning the value of "stuff" goes well beyond beliefs that by working for prosperity and the choice it affords, you're doing your duty by your dependents, for their perceived comfort. Comfort might have no limit.
This comfort argument is stretched to include accusations that simple living means denial and deprivation (making do with less, and making do without, a lack, a deficiency), which are seen as the other extreme. It is not a matter of luxury or discomfort and depravity. Instead, it is finding an intelligent, informed answer to the question: What is enough?
To put it another way:
"There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means - either will do - the result in the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest....But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society."
So said Benjamin Franklin centuries ago. He must have had hopes of immense individual and collective wisdom in the future-- a real challenge that should help us pull ourselves out of "subprime shopping" habits.
Other stuff you'll like to read:
Compassion and Climate Change: The Missing Link
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