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Stuff this, Stuff that by Mandy Carpenter
The word stuff, according to the Cambridge Dictionary[i] means “substance, especially when you do not know or say exactly what it is” or “someone’s possessions or things that they take with them” and interestingly “one of the most common nouns in speaking”. This signifies a slightly negative connotation. It is applied as a collective noun (I’ve got stuff to do this afternoon), stuff this, I’m going to have a weekend, or I have so much stuff (possessions). I refer to this as stuffocation. The fact that you do not know how to phrase the stuff that you have to do means that you are already tired of it in your subconscious mind, and you are willingly permitting these things to stress you out.
Science has proven that daily we can only make a certain amount of willing decisions[ii]. If you get dressed in the morning and you are uncertain what to wear, you are taking from the stockpile of your daily decisions. You are running a little late because of this and now you have to sit in the traffic. You forgot to pack lunch and Facebook reminds you that you missed a friend’s birthday. While you think about these things you hear a shampoo ad on the radio, and a taxi pushes past you and nearly runs your bumper off. By the time you get to work, you are already exhausted, as you have already spent a lot of your decisions on doing stuff that could have been simplified by making better decisions. This is known as decision fatigue.
It is nothing to be ashamed about: we now have more decisions and options, product and life-wise than ever before. Just look around you – every thing is branded: your work laptop, your phone, your diary, the clothes you wear and even the coffee you drink. You are a breathing billboard, a product – free advertising for a company, label or idea. You did not ask for this – or did you? Some people select brands because they like the look and feel of it, the sense of belonging that it promises or brings. It made me feel cheap, used, and highly frustrated.
Through this frustration, I decided to take on the war against stuff. I did not know where to start – we are taught to consume, not to reduce. The sheer amount of packaging things comes in, for “safety purposes” are really upsetting. In South Africa, I have found that we have somewhat of a hoarder’s mentality: “Ag! I can use this still”. We have relatively more space available to us to keep and store things, compared to small European countries. Despite being a third-world country, poverty is also a very serious and scary reality, which makes us feel guilty and somehow not allowed to throw away things – broken or not. This includes pills, food, spices, tattered clothing, toys, books and electronics (because it cost so much). Our homes become mausoleums to broken TVS, lidless Tupperwares, dated 1980’s curtains and overgrown (or dead) delicious monsters. This mantra is ingrained into us by our parents and grandparents, who lived in a pre-1994 South Africa where things were scarce because of trade bans and political instabilities.
I certainly felt very rebellious for throwing away unused and expired things, and also felt very ashamed when I realised the amount of unused/expired stuff I had. I chose to channel this shame into creativity and ‘adult’ and own up. I would still buy things, but I will be more conscious of the quantities I buy them in, as well as to how I buy them (like taking my own plastic bags to the shop).
I realised that if I did not have chocolate in the house, I could not see it, and I did not impulsively want it. This is the very trick that marketing companies and advertisers sadly use: they make you think you want it a product, or they remind you about the experience that you (can) have when using this product, they make you feel like an individual if you use a certain product (perfume, holiday). Personification and nostalgia are used to make you feel like a successful individual. But you’re not. You’re a victim, because they are defining success for you. For instance, my shampoo bottle has a picture of a waterfall on it, which I guess must make me feel calm. I did not ask for a waterfall! It was a faded, ugly, plastically labelled artificial decision that was forced on me – but I empowered this idea by willingly buying this product.
It has been found that the more you touch an object, the more you want it[iii](your willpower becomes less and you rationalise buying the item). This is why you’ll find demo models of products in stores (usually high-end items like computers, cell phones and electronics), display stands with freebies for you to try out (especially foods) and random products like razor blades, hair bands and batteries at the end of aisles near the shopping tills which will likely results in impulse buys. In clothing stores you can try on vast amounts of ill-fitted, cheap and mass produced products usually on “sale”, which you will most likely buy because you feel like you have scored a bargain, or dump because you are feeling pressurised by sales assistants that wish to either “help” you or wish to get rid of you (hereby creating a sense of urgency). After the purchase, this leads us to feel guilty, ashamed and regretful, hereby increasing the chances of not returning the item or just stuffing it into the back of our closets.
Life is boring and short enough. When I buy something, I want value for money – not a cheap, predictable experience. So I started celebrating my separation of stuff by personifying my life MY WAY. It was no easy task – “who am I really?” is a question that normally drives me to the self-help section of the bookstore. I decided to make a list of things that I am without things or stuff.
It felt like I failed a spelling test and had to write out my mistakes. But this is what it was: admitting to my needs. I then realised the following:
- I am a human – not a cat (though I love sleeping).
- I have to eat – skipping meals and eating takeout/junk/comfort food is not only expensive, it is bad for my skin and my body. It leads to feelings of guilt and shame, which I wish to avoid.
- I have to clean (myself and my surroundings). Tidying is not something they teach you at school, and may be a way for job creation (char) but cleanliness is godliness. A shower makes me feel better, and I like to have a nice product to clean myself with. Did you know that 70% of all cleaning products basically consist only of water, colorant and a foaming agent?
- I have to be warm/cold. This means having access to suitable clothing, blankets or costumes.
- I have to able/express what I am feeling. Emoticons and gifs can do that for me, but I want to draw or write about what I feel. This means I need supplies to help me write and craft.
- I have needs. I am not a solitary creature, and want to spend my time and celebrate with my friends. I love experiences and going out with them.
- I have to work. This means that I contribute to others and society, and get recognised/paid for my efforts.
- I have to relax. I can’t be angry forever with that taxi driver or car guard. This means that I can unwind with a book or a movie.
- I hate shopping and unnecessary spending. This means that I am being paid for my efforts, and wasting it is not an option.
- I need Wi-Fi. This means that running out of airtime is a reality, so if I buy a bigger data bundle and turn on an ad blocker, I am saving myself a lot of time and effort.
- I like celebrating life. I will not skimp on cereal and will always have ingredients for a cocoa drink at hand.
This exercise helped me to feel valued and also led me to identify the things in life that make me happy. Instead of doing a Facebook quiz to determine which Kardashian you are most likely to be, I challenge you to make a list like this. Take 10 minutes and a piece of paper and write down what and who you are without things or stuff. Stick it somewhere where you can see it every day. It may seem stupid, and that these items aren’t life-changing or mind-blowing things, but it made me stop giving and buying (a) stuff and start living a life.
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