To begin, a caveat:
I’ve gotten around as a professional travel writer for the past 14 years, and I don’t have a solid blanket characterization of all Americans. It’s that way with people, right? I mean, I could say talkative, enthusiastic, overzealous, tan. But I could say that about Puerto Ricans, too.
But if E. Howard asked me for a generalization here, I’ll give it the old college try. Literally. We went to college together. About five years ago. Or so.
So here’s this: Americans want everything.
In some ways, that’s good. In others, well, you’ve seen Hoarders.
More than our fair share
For most of us, wanting it all means the desire for traditional comforts, as we’ve come to know them in the past few generations. Nice house with a security system. Plenty of stuff to fill it. Money tucked away in the bank. Assurance that nothing bad will ever happen to ourselves and our loved ones—and if it does, that we can buy our way back to health and safety.
For some, it’s about general accumulation: power, property, money, titles, awards, whatever floats the boat.
Trouble is, it’s easy to fall into the habit of taking more than your fair share, and when that happens, you’re probably ripping off somebody else. And that’s not going to work out so well for us in the end. (See: Oil wars.)
I was thinking a lot about that a few years back. For some reason, I had rolled my family right into the steep wheel ruts of this new American Dream, the one where you drive around to practice and playdates all the time, and spend ample hours in SuperTarget buying stuff you don’t need.
The kids were still pretty young then, and though my husband Jim and I weren’t the most egregious offenders in the bloated consumer category, we were closer than we wanted to get. He had like three grills at one point. I blush at the number of shoes in my closet. Zadie wasn’t much into toys, but back then if I piled up Sam’s Thomas the Train collection, Transformers, Legos and general flotsam from the McDonald’s Happy Meals, he wouldn’t have been able to see over the top even if he was standing on my car, and he was tall for his age.
It wasn’t really how I envisioned family life to be like.
The Great Re-Grouping
I’m not going to say that my reaction to this concern was rational, but here it is:
In 2009, I sold all our stuff and hauled all four of us back to the land of my immigrant great-grandparents to start over.
Jim, the kids, and I, lived in the ancient mountain village of Mrkopalj, Croatia, for about four months, then moved about Croatia and Europe for several more. We lived in one-room pensions. We shopped daily for fresh food (dorm fridge!). We spent a lot of time just hanging out in the wide-open meadows of Mrkopalj (pronounced MER-koe-pie). We traveled in a compact Peugeot (yes, a family of four … it got a little tight sometimes). By the time we left Europe, our collective belongings totaled five suitcases.
Lots of amazing and awful things happened during that time. But I can tell you one thing: Missing an over accumulation of stuff was not one of them.
And we learned a few things about wanting everything:
• Life’s less stressful when you live moderately. Managing belongings take a lot of time. When you’ve got four shirts and two pairs of jeans, you’ve got a lot more time to linger over breakfast with the kids instead of fretting over your outfit. Though I still fretted about my hair a lot.
• Downsizing felt good. I was so surprised at how great it felt to power through my house and remove all the toys and clothes and junk that meant absolutely nothing to us. We took things to the second-hand store, and held a big name-your-own-price garage sale. What remained were treasures that we were really happy to see when we came home. Nothing more.
• It’s hard to maintain a low-stuff lifestyle in America. Everywhere you turn, somebody’s waving something in your face to buy. Being particularly susceptible to shoes and sweaters, I find this difficult. My son would say the same about vids and Pokemon cards. (Daughter and Husband could care less.) I’m still far from perfect when it comes to accumulation, but I try to keep in mind that supporting the culture of Way Too Much is just encouraging the opposite effect somewhere in the world: someone else is gonna have Way Too Little. I don’t have empirical evidence of this, but it seems about right.
• Focusing on the things you want takes away from focusing on the things that really matter. My son is a good example of this. When he’s clinging to the notion of needing just one more Pokemon pack, we talk of nothing else. And I can feel, in every conversation, his desire to just come right back around to that same topic again. It’s distracting, and it’s a bummer. He’s nine and he’s awesome and I want to remain connected to him in a meaningful way. (Of course, sometimes when I’m talking to my husband, I am thinking about the cute fall boots I just saw in a catalog, so I’m pretty sure I know where he gets this.) Without fail, every time I offer my kids a chance to pick something from the toy aisle, it ends in bad behavior and tears somehow. You’d think I’d learn.
When is enough?
Now, Americans wanting everything has resulted in some great things that we benefit from every day. Americans want better health, and so we make these crazy great strides in the health care field all the time. (Fingers crossed for a cancer cure here soon.) Americans want all the entertainment, all the time, and so we have iEverything. What kind of amazing is it that you can store five days worth of music on the same device that you use to call your dad? Really goddamned amazing, that’s what kind.
Americans wanted this country, too, and though I get super depressed every time I drive past a clear-cut timber or an Indian casino, this is about the most beautiful place I can imagine. I just wish we weren’t so clumsy with it, wanting too much electricity or fuel or what have you, and ruining what we’ve got just to have more, more, more.
Listen, I’m no philosopher; I tell stories for a living, and this was a pretty deep question. But having lived in the land that seems to want everything, and having traveled to those that have so much less, I hope I can break my American habit of trying to hog it all up, leaving so little for the rest of the planet.
Because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t bring more happiness, and eventually, it brings exactly the opposite.
Now if I could just stop thinking about those cute black leather oxford shoes in the fall J. Jill collection, I will have achieved inner peace.
Jennifer Wilson’s first book, RUNNING AWAY TO HOME, about that time her family ditched the comfortable life for the mountain village of her ancestors, is available at jennifer-wilson.com. If you don’t want to accumulate too much stuff, you can get the electronic version instead.