Like the angst-ridden Andie McDowell character in the movie Sex, Lies and Videotape, who worried about where all the garbage was going, I brood about what to do with all the stuff I've accumulated. I spend far too much time buying stuff, maintaining the stuff I've bought and getting rid of old stuff to make room for new stuff. Especially since my mother died, and I've been incorporating some of her stuff with mine, I've begun to feel overwhelmed by stuff. A friend suggested I need a bigger house. What I need is less stuff, and I've begun to wonder if our great American economic engine has really bought us better lives or only filled them up with more... stuff.
I'm not alone in my perception that Americans have too much stuff. Some people looking at our culture from the outside have noticed the same thing. In March, a group of young lawyers from the former Soviet Republics and the Baltic states attended a Duke Law School conference. They'd been studying at law schools across the United States for more than six months, so they'd had enough time to form some impressions of this country. Most of their impressions were favorable, they told me, but the one thing they all agreed on was that Americans seem to be obsessed with money and things.
When I think of the countries of the former Soviet Union, posters and busts of Marx and Lenin pop into my head. Communism's old ideologues may be out of favor now in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, but who or what will replace them? If our country is any gauge, Marx and Lenin will give way to icons like Michael Jordan hawking MCI's "five cents a minute" or the images of supermodels gazing down at us from billboards, peddling everything from clothes to cosmetics to computers.
The former Soviet Union had Marxist ideologues; we have corporate bosses. Call it marketing or merchandising, but brainwashing by any other name is still brainwashing: We're sold daily on the myth that our lives would be so much more fulfilling if only we owned a Lexus LX 470 luxury SUV, "now with added intimidation," the advertisement boasts.
Acquiring stuff makes us feel powerful -- until the bills come due. Since we don't have a traditional aristocracy, we define our status by what we own. The guy who lives by himself in a 6,000-square-foot house (yes, I know of at least one such person) filled with expensive stuff must be somebody. And if we can't rely on relationships to sustain us or believe in the sincerity of our political leaders, by golly, we can always count on that new riding lawnmower to do the job we ask of it.
But the cult of consumption is, in the end, without substance. It is the false idol before which we offer our credit cards and the fruits of our ever-lengthening hours of labor. I don't believe we really want so much stuff; I believe we want love, respect, a sense of belonging and purpose and a connection to something larger than ourselves. And maybe some of us want freedom from the daily grind of less-than-rewarding jobs. But it's so much easier to just buy a new sofa.
You can bet the merchandisers of America are capitalizing on our acquisitive zeitgeist: Cond & eacute; Nast is launching a new magazine -- called Lucky -- that makes no pretensions to editorial content. The magazine, termed a "magalog" by Newsweek, is all about stuff -- from $700 Manolo Blahnik sandals to the best makeup sponges money can buy. I ask you, can the fool who spends $700 on a pair of sandals be called lucky -- or something else? Lucky will likely spawn a gaggle of imitators. What a sobering thought.
If your forebears were like mine, they came to this country without much more than the clothes on their backs and a few family mementos. My ancestral home on my father's side was located in a tenement on Manhattan's Lower East Side at 106 Delancey Street, which is now a fast-food Wendy's. But you can still see many of the original tenements in this bustling area of Manhattan. When they arrive in New York, newer immigrants continue to find the Lower East Side the place of first settlement. The area's original population of Irish, Germans, Italians and Russians has given way to Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Asians, Haitians and Bangladeshis.
At 97 Orchard Street, you'll find the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and there you can see what life was like for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came here seeking a better life. At the turn of the century through the 1920s, the Lower East Side was the most densely populated area in the world, and life was unimaginably grim. In summer, residents slept on fire escapes, roofs and sidewalks to flee the heat. In winter, they huddled around coal-fired stoves on which they also cooked. Women in their long Victorian dresses had to haul water from a pump in the yard up several flights of dark stairs without even gaslight to guide them. The higher up you lived in a tenement, the cheaper the rent.
As I walked through the tiny, dark, three-room apartments that were home to as many as a dozen people each, I felt privileged to have risen so far above those circumstances and grateful for the diligence and thrift that allowed my grandparents to better themselves and move uptown. I consider myself fairly diligent, but thrift is a virtue I would do well to cultivate.
I feel guilty about having so much stuff, and it's not just because I have so much when most of the world has so little; it's also because I know that every time I buy something I don't need, I'm contributing to using up a bit more of the earth's resources. And I feel sick at heart every time I drive past what used to be woodlands around my neighborhood and now see apartment complexes, strip malls and bulldozers clearing land for yet another drugstore. This is just what I need: more stores nearby to make it easier for me to buy more stuff.
There is an organization -- the Center for a New American Dream -- for people like me who want to get off the consumption treadmill. Their motto, "more fun, less stuff," appeals to me as does their mission of helping people and organizations reduce and shift their consumption to enhance quality of life and protect the environment. As their website (www.newdream.org) says, "Our hectic work-and-spend way of life takes its toll on our financial well-being, psychological health and personal happiness." We're tired, stressed, overworked and have far too little time for friends and family. I want to be rich in friends, love and intellect -- not possessions.
Mirinda J. Kossoff is a writer, radio show host and director of communications for Duke University's School of Law.