I have confessed before my appreciation for Henry David Thoreau—an odd thinker, perhaps, for a ProfHacker to esteem. Nevertheless, I think Thoreau can be a useful antidote to unbridled techno-lust. As I wrote in that earlier post, “I want to use gadgets and software that will help me do things I already wanted to do—but better, or more efficiently, or with more impact.” I don’t want to acumulate things for their own sake.
In one of my favorite passages from Walden, Thoreau recalls, “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.” When I teach Walden, I often ask my students to reflect on this extreme reaction: “Why does Thoreau have such an adverse reaction to such a seemingly simple task? Is he lazy? Is he crazy?” They sometimes answer “yes” to the final question, but we eventually work toward an understanding of Thoreau’s exaggerated focus on necessity. It’s not that Thoreau disdains all possessions, but that he absolutely insists on possessing only what serves regular purpose.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s limestone in the past few weeks, and my wife and I prepare to move across the country. We’ve been packing up our things, and in the process trying to purge those things we’ve accumulated but don’t really use. Last weekend we held a yard sale, divesting much of the flotsam that builds up in any house. We’re determined to move only those things that serve a distinct purpose for us, to leave this house lighter than we entered it. I will admit that I get satisfaction out of watching things go, seeing space appear where there was some thing.
I relate this not to brag, but to start a conversation about necessity. We talk about tech all the time here at ProfHacker. We are, most of us at least, intrigued by gadgets and gizmos. But there comes a time to simplify: to hold a garage sale, sell used gadgets on Gazelle, or donate to Goodwill.
How about you? How do you simplify your material life? How (and when (and why)) do you get rid of stuff? Tell us about it in the comments.