I grew up in America.
What this means is, although my mother did her best to shelter us from a lot of popular culture, though homeschooling, trips to the supermarket and friend’s houses. The rare radio channel helped me learn to value money and possessions above most things.
This means that by the time I went to college, I was learning that the more we have, the better we are. Of course, these thoughts didn’t flow through my head exactly like a ticker tape. It came out through my sudden need for all new clothes, or the way I longed for matching towel sets on my weekly trips to Target.
I learned the dirty secret of American Life: buying new possessions will help define me and allow me to reach a higher sense of self-actualization.
I didn’t need a new dress, I could see myself in the dress in my mind, and in my mind I saw a new identity that came from wearing the dress. I was a self-secure, confident woman wearing that dress. If I could just buy and wear the dress, I would also become self-secure and confident.
This is normal.
This is how shopping works. And I bought it hook, line and sinker. I was never one to wear the most stylish outfits or want the coolest car or newest phone. But I did start learning to replace the word “want” with the word “need.” I need a new jacket, even though I have three already. This one is brown and brown is my new favorite color and it has the outdoor logo, so wearing it will help me feel more outdoorsy.
This train of thinking is what gives me a full time job in the outdoor industry, so I don’t want to hate on it too badly.
But I do want to re-examine my relationship with “things.”
I don’t want a job so much that I spend hours in a cubicle, missing my life. I don’t want to need a thick paycheck that badly.
The best way to prevent this is to learn to live on air, as my dad says. For a long time, my “need” for things cluttered my house. The funniest part was, although I had all these things that should help me with an identity, I couldn’t have felt any more lost.
A room just for gear, tucked away neatly in navy plastic tubs. A kitchen full of cabinets with twice as many dishes as anyone could need, mismatched because I was “artsy.” A closet with colorful clothes for the days I felt bohemian and dark khaki pants with thick plaid flannels for my outdoorsy days.
Why did I have all these things if I truly knew myself? My identity was wrapped up in all these belongings when it should have been in the quiet knowledge of who I am.
The strongest identity I had was as a kayaker. So, you guessed it, I had several brand t-shirts, a backyard littered with boats, old paddles stacked neatly in the storage room. I had a brand-named coffee mug for when we went early morning creeking, stickers on everything I owned, even a webbing dog leash.
The problem with this was my identity was wrapped up in this persona, reinforced by the things I needed. And when I had a rough few weeks with kayaking, then took a few months off, I lost my identity as rapidly as I had gained it by merely buying things.
I had to find a new identity.
This sudden life crisis was pivotal. It allowed me to really strip beneath the surface of who I thought I was and who I really am. It allowed me to get past the crap in my closets, under my bed, stuffed into slightly crooked kitchen cupboards.
I live in staff housing. Yes, I’m 26 years old. But I still spend half the year in staff housing. It is a great way for me to save money, make friends, and live with less. Living in a tiny room with two shelves last summer helped me sift through my stuff. All of sudden, whether or not an item gave me a sense of identity didn’t matter as much as, “did it fit in my space?”
I began to learn the difference between need and want.
I can only wear one pair of pants at a time, so do I really need seven pairs? I only eat out of one bowl at a time; do I need a whole cabinet full? (Turns out I need two bowls, one for me and one for my husband when he visits).
Learning to live with less not only lets me save money, but it forces me to find my identity in a way most Americans never have the opportunity: outside of material possessions.
My identity is now found in the rest of a downward dog during hot yoga, in the 360° view of the Blue Ridge Mountains on my favorite hike, in the early morning runs by the river with my dog. Buying things could never replace the feeling I get when I’m sitting by the fire with my 45 roommates and someone breaks out a guitar and for once, we’re all quiet as she strums away.
I know myself truly in the stillness of the mornings, with French press coffee and the news while my husband sleeps. I’m a sister, a friend, a wife. I’m an aspiring yogi, a hard worker, a dog owner, a kayaker.
These identities are the ones I know in my heart, not because of anything I own. Having an expensive ring won’t make me a good wife, but the unfailing love my husband and I share will.
And that, my friends, can never be bought.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Annabell Plush
Apprentice Editor: Megan Ridge Morris/ Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photos: courtesy the author