Managing stuff takes too much time

Religion column



It is disconcerting to contemplate the amount of stuff that middle class Americans own. Whereas the average size of an American home in 1960 was 983 square feet, that average home had mushroomed something like 250 percent in 2011 to 2,480 square feet, even while the average number of people living in the home shrank. My own family history closely mirrors this trend. My parents raised four children; the six of us lived in a three-bedroom, one-bath house with incredibly small closets. I could not imagine now living in such a home. It couldn’t contain all our stuff.

Researchers at UCLA recently studied every aspect of the lives of middle class California families, publishing results of the study in “Life at Home in the Twenty First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.”

Here are some of their other “stuff-related” findings:

“Managing the huge level of possessions in a middle class home increases the stress level for the mothers. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The more stuff we have the more difficult it is to sort, store, maintain, insure, clean, dust, organize and pick up. Many of us are attached to this invisible ball and chain called our possessions and hardly realize what a drag they can become.

“Garages are another part of the story. Three-fourths of the families in the study couldn’t park their vehicles in the garage because this parking space had become a huge overflow closet. An urban sociologist could have a field day sorting through our garages and attics to categorize the things that we don’t have the nerve to throw away. A friend of mine admits to keeping a box of possessions in his attic labeled something like, “Things We Don’t Need and Will Never Use.”

“Big box stores have led us to purchase food and cleaning supplies in bulk, guaranteeing the need for even larger closets.”

It is embarrassing and shameful for those of us in the middle class to complain about too-small closets, cramped garages and the need for larger utility sheds. A Dorothy Lange photograph depicts a 1933 Dust Bowl family living in a trailer with no plumbing or electricity. Though conditions are not nearly this dire today, millions of Americans will never be complaining about an overabundance of possessions.

I am too embarrassed to document how many shirts are in my closet, socks in my sock drawer, coffee cups in my cupboard, books on my shelves, but here’s one example from this adult who grew up in the ’60s: I own over 200 LPs, 50-60 cassette tapes and over 100 CDs. (Never fell for the 8-track tapes!) All these occupy much space and are rendered practically useless by new music technology. My two workable turntables, amplifier, tuner and speakers are gathering dust. But sentimental reasons make it difficult to divest. This is a religious problem. More next week.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.