Disasters force us to reconsider the importance of belongings

pile of furniture
CC BY 2.0 John Carkeet -- A pile of furniture left in the wake of Hurricane Irma in Florida

When a lifetime of collected stuff can be destroyed in minutes, one cannot help but ask what's really needed.

When fire, flood, or fierce winds are barreling toward your home, it is striking how material possessions cease to matter. Items that were once prized belongings are left behind without a second thought because the most important thing is escaping unscathed. When it comes down to those frantic last-minute decisions, people, pets, and photographs are pretty much all that matters.

With thousands of people recovering from recent disasters in California, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, the discussion about the role of material possessions in our lives has never been more relevant. We spend years acquiring stuff and building collections that we think reflect who we are and create beauty in our lives, and yet these can be wiped out within minutes.

This is put into sharp perspective by a reader of Joshua Becker's Becoming Minimalist blog, who became a minimalist in a single day without even trying, thanks to the horrific fire in Santa Rosa, California:

An article in the Washington Post echoes the same sentiment. Some people are realizing how weighed down they felt by all their stuff prior to losing it in disasters and how, in a perverse sense, it feels good to start fresh with fewer belongings. While many Americans dream of decluttering, few take the effort to do so because it's an intensely emotional and difficult process.

"Organizing and decluttering are national obsessions. But rather than taking the time to wade through their things, many get more joy out of watching cable shows on closet cleaning, buying plastic tubs at the Container Store and reading Marie Kondo’s books. They contemplate reevaluating the mountains of stuff in their garages, attics and basements. But many don’t even have enough room in their homes for everything they want to keep: Almost 10 percent of American households have a storage unit, according to the Self Storage Association."

This is a strange state of being, when you stop to analyze it. Americans live in the world's biggest homes, and yet many cannot even fit their belongings within that immense space. Many garages are so loaded up that families cannot park their cars inside. It is impossible to stay on top of cleaning and organizing, which leads to yet more financial outlays in the form of housecleaners and storage units. How have we allowed ourselves to lapse into this absurdity?

While it's tragic to lose everything in a disaster, this can serve as a valuable lesson to the rest of us about the importance of paring down our stuff and being ready for disasters, should they strike. As one California couple told the Washington Post after witnessing their daughter's escape from her home in Napa, "This tragedy made us realize that whatever stuff we had can eventually be replaced. Getting out with your life and your animal companions is more important."

In the meantime, a life with less stuff is a life with greater freedom to do other fun and adventurous things, fewer maintenance responsibilities, and less debt. It sounds like a win-win situation for all.

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