Possessions in an aviary - the art of letting things alone

Twelve months ago Tessa and I told our employers we were quitting our job. One month later we sold almost everything we owned – only some books, music records and clothes were saved (1). With just a couple of boxes under our arm, we closed the front door and handed over the keys to the landlord. That was it, done: we no longer had a house and hardly owned any possessions. Now, almost a year later, we can reflect and ask the question: how do we feel about that?

Tessa was great in moving our stuff

"Calm like the ocean after a thunderstorm"

I remember the sound of our last walk through the apartment before we closed the door. Our footsteps echoed like walking in a museum on Tuesday morning. We now had no house anymore and only a couple of things were saved from selling or dumping at the local garbage belt. It felt strange. A peculiar rush crept through my body, and I couldn’t place its cause. Maybe it was because we always had a house: a place of our own. Never had no house (2).  What a luxury when you think of it. But it also felt clean. Fresh. New. Like you feel when you tidy your living room. Calm like the ocean after a thunderstorm. Or was it because we mobbed the floor with cheap eucalyptus cleaner? I don’t know.

"Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) once wrote a most interesting piece about duties and happiness."

With this feeling of tidiness I had to think about the hidden relation between duties and possessions. Duties like paying rent and insurance bills, wearing a different set of clothes every day and improving your screen time when your manager didn’t leave for home yet. Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) once wrote a most interesting piece about duties and happiness.

“The happiest person is one who understands the art of becoming happy without abandoning its duties. The most unhappy person is one who has chosen a life whereby from morning to evening (s)he spends her/his time to pitiful duties to care for the future.” (3)

After I read this the first time I paused for a second to think of all the duties we had before we left everything behind. The list turned out longer than I expected. It seemed that one necessity created a new necessity, which in its turn strengthened the former. A sort of circular domino game. All that stuff we used to own. It was incredible how much came out of our small second-floor city apartment in the heart of Rotterdam. Why did we have all of that?

"It was not so much the cliché of finding ourselves, but rather the act of losing ourselves"

When T and I gained some distance from the life we had (after all, we are just one year in), we vaguely started to realize we too belonged to the class of the unhappy persons. Long days for an abundance of irrelevant duties and possessions which all somehow contributed to an unknown and distant future. In Turkey we met a man who vividly described West-Europeans as programmed robots who performed a fixed set of movements, repeated in cycles of 24 hours. I laughed at first and thought of a bad sci-fi thriller. But his analogy kept sticking to my mind, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense (4).

All our possessions fit in these bags

Do we have the answer how to do it better? No, not really. But we do have the opportunity now to at least think about it. In our inter-personal journey it’s like we are splitting ourselves in two. One eye looks down through the microscope while the other looks back up. This subject-object analysis caused an interesting thing to happen: we started to alienate from ourselves. It was not so much the cliché of finding ourselves, but rather the act of losing ourselves. We entered an in-between state of the old and new us. A place we currently still inhabit.

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone"

Still here? Good! Let’s use some good old pragmatism to illustrate this dreamy monster. We will do this by picturing our mind as an aviary (5).  All our possessions are transformed into birds flying around in it. Can you imagine the sight and sound of that? Shit and feathers everywhere. After we got rid of most of our possessions the aviary felt big like a castle. There was so much space and room to think clearly; to determine what was really needed or not. Henry David Thoreau wrote about this in his book Walden (1854). He said that a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone (6). An old saying for the modern t-shirt print of less is more. I guess Thoreau was way ahead of his time.

When we return to the question of why we had all that stuff packed into our apartment I can think of three reasons. First. Things that made our house a place to live. We need them because they offer the possibility to sleep, cook and clean. They are our living essentials. Second. Things with a certain sentimental value that often stay hidden in cabinets and drawers carrying an important but vague memory or unfulfilled promise. And at last, and let’s be honest here, the majority of things are just there. They are there because we think we need them. Because we think they make us happy. They make us fit in and comply with social duties. Like welcoming certain people to your house and competing with your neighbour (7).

"Happiness is one of the driving forces of our 21st century now humanism is our last standing religion"

The idea that possessions create happiness is completely normal. Happiness is one of the driving forces of our 21st century now humanism is our last standing religion (8). With us at the center of the universe we see happiness no longer as our right to pursue it, but as the right to have it. This is the result of our current political-economic model of infinite growth (9). A growth which when halted does not end in a well-balanced ecosystem, but a massive disaster. Therefore an infinite consumption, and thus infinite happiness, is required. You would never see a commercial where buying a good or service ends in a feeling of dissatisfaction. As long as we believe consuming brings happiness we will never consume less, although we all really try it.

Our tiny home

But is there anything wrong with the aim of being happy? No, of course not! T and I also try to find our means to happiness, otherwise we wouldn’t give it all up. But the means and goal must be sustainable for us and the generations to come. Happiness is not something you can buy from a shelf. Also when I look back now I think most of the things we consumed were irrelevant and expensive. Would we then, if returned to our old life, work less if we consumed less? To be honest, I don’t know. I at least hope to think so.

"The goal is to find your means of opening new and closing old doors of perception"

Of course we haven’t found the answer to happiness. But speaking for ourselves I think we can say we are happier now. After we have reduced our consumption, possessions and comfort we feel more alive. As if certain blinds are lifted. Travelling helped us with this, but in itself it is a way amongst many. The goal is to find your means of opening new and closing old doors of perception. In this act you will learn that a different life is possible.

"Maybe we will miss owning stuff and start consuming again once we have settled down. Maybe we won’t"

So there you have it, a personal review of owning less. How the future will turn out for us is unclear. Maybe we will miss owning stuff and start consuming again once we have settled down. Maybe we won’t. We will see. A tiny house then? Nah, not really our thing. Where would you leave your family and friends during cozy candlelight, jazz and red wine dinner evenings? For now we stick to our winning game plan: that there isn’t any. One thing we do know, just a little less for ourselves and the world around us is not a bad idea.


(1) And of course all things we needed for our trip

(2) Here we make a clear difference between house and home. Although we do not have a house, we do have a home at family and friend

(3) Giacomo Casanova, Mijn Avonturen met non M.M., 2017, p.6

(4) This would actually be a great remake of the movie They Live (1988). In this movie the protagonist finds magical glasses which when looked through, turns some people into aliens, and commercials show their underlying subliminal messages. In our remake we would see robots instead of aliens. Curious how that would turn out.

(5) Based on Socrates’ idea of picturing the human mind as an aviary

(6) I used Thoreau’s expression materialistically. Of course it can also be used for unmaterialistic standpoints.

(7) This can also be a good thing! Research pointed out that if your neighbours have solar panels or electric cars you will most likely copy their behaviour. It’s even more addicting than smoking or drinking alcohol. Marcello Graziano, Kenneth Gillingham: 'Spatial patterns of solar photovoltaic system adoption: The influence of neighbors and the built environment', 2015

(8) Modern humanistic religions like liberalism or communism gives mankind the power to determine what is right or wrong, replacing God who did this job for many years.

(9) Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2017, p.38