If Stuff is Just Stuff


If stuff is just stuff, why is it so hard to leave behind?

Most of you know that Darrell and I just made our second huge move across the country of 2012.

Last January, nine days after we got married, we moved from Portland, Oregon to West Palm Beach Florida. If you’ve never heard the story, the move included selling all of my furniture, packing six boxes of my favorite items, realizing six boxes was too expensive to ship, narrowing the stack to three boxes, crying over items as I gave them to Goodwill, and then arriving in Florida to find that USPS had lost an entire box.

For some reason, the entire process felt devastating.

If stuff is just stuff, why did it matter so much?

The second time we moved in 2012, it was from South Florida to Minneapolis, with a long layover in North Carolina to rest, regroup, and spend the holidays with family.

Again, we sold all of our furniture, packed up what we couldn’t bear to lose, and (with the help of our parents) transported our things to our stopping point in North Carolina. This time, I was proud of myself as we sold our things. I was much less attached, had a much easier time parting with furniture, and generally felt free as we left things behind.

That is, until we found that there was no efficient way to get what we had brought with us to North Carolina, to Minneapolis.

We could only take what would fit in our car.

We’d have to leave about half of our things behind.

For some reason, the day before we left North Carolina, I found myself again, crying stupid tears over stuff that I had collected over the past year, stuff that was useful to me, or that had special meaning.

If stuff is just stuff, why is it so hard to leave behind?

The irony isn’t lost on me that, while all of this is happening, I’m writing a book called Packing Light. The book is about a time, a few years ago, when I quit my job, sold everything I owned (minus what would fit in my car) and went on a 50 state road trip to chase my dream to become a writer.

I gave up everything to write a book. It was hard when I did it that first time, it was hard when Darrell and I moved to Florida, and for some stupid reason it was just as hard leaving behind all of my things the other day.

If it’s “just stuff” why do I care so much?

When I went on the road trip, I was inspired by the story of the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospels. He comes to Jesus and asks what he has to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor.

He walks away, sad, because he is a man of great wealth.

If stuff is just stuff, why isn’t he willing to give up his possessions to be with Jesus? He wants to experience the Kingdom of Heaven, but for some reason, he wants his stuff more.

If stuff is just stuff, why do we get so attached to it?

I have some ideas, but first I want to hear yours.

What do you think? Are you attached to stuff? Why or why not?


  1. says

    Great post. Stuff is so important in my life because it feeds me need to maintain control. When every other part of my life is spiraling out of control, its “my stuff” that I can control, for the most part. Obviously “my stuff” promises a false sense of life/identity to me. Losing “my stuff” generates a sense of panic because it wrestles control out of my hands. Thankfully I’m not the Author of my life, I loose way too much “stuff.”

    • says

      Caleb — yes, yes. I think you’re so right that our attachment to stuff has to do with identity and control. At least that’s what it is for me. A loss of control never feels comfortable.
      I think that’s why, even when we let stuff go, and we get new stuff, we get attached to the new stuff too. Maybe that’s why Jesus asked the Rich Young Ruler the sell everything, because he saw that the young man’s things were getting the way of him finding his identity, joy and meaning in Christ.

      After all, the man wanted to experience the Kingdom of Heaven — the tangible experience of God’s presence, love and joy on this earth.

  2. Louise says

    I love it when you write about this topic, as it’s nice to know I’m not the only one deeply attached to things! I’m attached to stuff as it gives me stability in life- so despite moving to France and back again to the UK 3 times in 4 years there is a constant. Also, it’s the memories that each item holds which makes them hard to throw away.

    • says

      Louise — I’m glad I’m not the only one. I think you’re right about items holding memories. But do the items actually hold the memories? Or do we hold the memories and we just attach the memories to the items?
      I don’t know the answer to the question, but I’m asking it and curious to see what I discover.

      • Destiny says

        I agree that it’s us who holds these memories that we attach to (most often) inanimate objects of little (true) worth, but it is also our way of holding onto that moment that memory is the key to. It’s something physical that relates to something (generally speaking) of great value/importance/or involvement in our lives. By releasing these items, we are releasing the last physical possession of something deemed important to us. I may have talked around myself, but it reminds me of the concept of being loved. We are all loved, and we know this, but there can be an uncertainty in our minds towards this idea until we possess something that validates that thinking (ex. ring, document, gift, stuffed animal, etc.). When we remove those items we must rely on the knowledge obtained prior to, the fact that we know, in our inner being we are loved, and that validation is not from these objects. It’s similar for these memories and moments that shape us, make us, create us into who we are and who we are becoming; the objects are not the validation. The knowledge and truth that we are not what we were before them is.

        • says

          Destiny — I agree. I don’t think that our attachment to the physical representation of our memories is wrong or bad, I think it becomes “wrong” (or just detrimental) when it becomes more important to us than anything else. And, when it comes down to it, I think we recognize that our lives are worth more than those things. After all, if our house were burning to the ground, we would rescue ourselves and those we love before we would rescue any of our things. Life would go on without those things. It’s just always sad to see them go.

  3. says

    Sure thing – we’re all attached to things in some way. It drove me nuts as a kid because my brother was a packrat. He never got rid of anything. On the other hand, I get bursts of energy to clean out the basement and take a trunk-load of stuff to goodwill every now and then without a second thought.
    But my house is still filled with plenty of stuff. Some I’d like to get rid of, but plenty of it makes up my day to day “life.” That’s why people on the news who just lost their houses to storms or fire are so devastated, I guess. It doesn’t feel like just stuff, they always say they lost their “lives.”

    • says

      Matt — that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. It seems almost like there is a spiritual quality to our “stuff,” like the things we live in and around have some connection to who we are. Maybe it’s not a real connection, it’s just one we make in our heads, but either way, if we lose someone we love, it’s almost like their stuff gives us a connection to them.
      It’s the same reason we have museums full of artifacts. It gives us a connection to our history. It feels more real to read about the civil war when we can see an actual uniform, or a bunker or something like that, instead of just words on a page.

  4. says

    Having done 2 similar moves in 2 years, I think we know our stuff shows that we are/we were here and that our days mattered. They are our historical artifacts and standing stones.

    • says

      Allie — that’s a good point. I think that’s why we save artifacts from previous generations and time periods and put them in museums. It documents our existence and our history. It reminds us where we came from. It anchors us to earth.
      Thank you for sharing.

  5. says

    I think that sometimes I am attached in a way that I can’t throw it out, but if it burned up accidentally in a fire, I’d shrug and go, alrighty then. We recently decluttered to try and sell our house and when our house didn’t sell and we had to bring some boxes back from storage, someone suggested I just throw it all away and think twice. I couldn’t do it. Not because I’m too attached, rich young ruler style, but because things like family photos were in those boxes. Journals I’ve written since I was 14. Things that are sentimental and can’t be replaced or re-bought. Keeping them isn’t me hanging tightly to something necessarily, but more preserving. And if I HAD to let go, I could. But I’m not getting rid of it willingly as long as I have the space. Does that distinction make sense? I don’t think it’s bad to have stuff–it depends how tightly you are holding on.

    • says

      Kristen — yes, you’re distinction makes sense and it is a really good one. I agree that it isn’t bad to have stuff. Jesus doesn’t hate our stuff! But I think when our stuff gets in the way of us being who he called us to be or going where he calls us to go, that’s when it becomes a problem. At least that’s how it has been for me.
      Would you be willing to get rid of those boxes if you felt called to a job in another country and couldn’t take them with you? Or if you had to move into a smaller place for financial reasons?

      Each time I’ve moved I’ve made the decision to get rid of things, but then I grieve the loss. And I guess I”m just struck by how that shows how much that stuff mattered to me. I think it mattered even more than I realized.

  6. says

    I wrote on my blog the other day that purging isn’t bad because simple living isn’t something you master, it’s something you have to practice.
    I get strange attachments to stuff. I’m not the most organized person so I often have to go through massive clean & purge periods. Each time I do I find something I didn’t know was missing, so clearly I don’t need it but because” (insert name) it to me and they died recently I HAVE TO keep it.

    I wore a watch during a conference because I didn’t want my phone on my person the whole time. I don’t like watches but I kept the one my aunt gave me since she died the year before, but I had trouble seeing the time. My dad saw it (my aunt’s brother) and said “She gave that to you? It’s a terrible watch.” That helped me break my attachment and give it to someone who could actually use it. It helped me to see someone else’s prospective by getting out of my own head to let things go.

    • says

      Sarah — I agree that “Packing Light” is something we have to practice. I think we can fall out of practice over time, too. I think it can be healthy to make a regular practice of getting rid of stuff, not letting it accumulate.

  7. says

    I have slight pack rat tendencies because I attach meaning to everything. I think I fear if I get rid of the tangible evidence of something, even though the memory might still be somewhere in my head, I’ll forget to ever think about it and it will be like it never happened. This past May I went on a trip to the UK, and I made a point of writing as much as possible about everything I noticed. Even if I did lose or get rid of ticket stubs or souvenirs, I’d still have some sort of record of it. I wish I would’ve been better about writing down things I notice sooner so maybe I’d have a few less boxes, haha.

    • says

      Brianna — one thing my husband and I have talked about that has helped me is that when we see things or experience things, those memories become a part of us, even if we never recall them to conscious memory. Those experiences shape who we become so, even if we never “remember” what happened, it is a part of who we are.
      It doesn’t make it easy to let go of sentimental things, but maybe a little easier when I think about it that way.

  8. says

    After making three international moves in the last six years and preparing for number four in the next few months (and throw in a home invasion in which many of my things were stolen), I’m not necessarily attached to my things anymore. I’ve learned that when all of my things are taken away or in boxes in another country, God still provides. I’m still be able to live life even if I’m not surrounded by all of my things. However, what makes it hard to get rid of stuff or leave stuff behind is that some of those items represent dreams. The dream of having my own kitchen with my own dishes in it, instead of dishes that come with the apartment. The dream of decorating with my own paintings collected on various trips. And I think that’s what makes it hard sometimes; it’s not just the stuff; it’s saying good-bye to the dreams they represent.

    • says

      Laura — I love what you said about letting go of the dreams represented by our stuff. That makes so much sense. And I think the “American Dream” sets us all up to be attached to stuff. Even if we know consciously that the American Dream is a farce, it permeates our culture with consumerism and materialism.
      I’m so sorry you had stuff stolen. That’s an even more difficult way to lose things, I imagine. What a violation.

  9. says

    I feel this way too. I think for me, it’s about fearing I’ll never get any other stuff again, generic as it may be. (Maybe partly growing up poor, not having much stuff & always longing for more stuff). And then there’s also just the good old fashioned, American greed that has seeped it’s way into my consciousness, no matter how hard I try to fight against it. And then there’s just the good old time factor…the hubs married almost 13 years, 10 years in the same house, two kids and LOTS OF STUFF….lots of it useless and old and honestly, we NEED to get rid of it and just haven’t made the time nor hosted as many garage sales as we need to. Stuff, for me, is a problem, a big nasty, hairy, ridiculous problem. I relate!

    • says

      Grace — I totally relate with growing up poor (although poor is relative, in my little kid mind there were always things I wanted to have that I couldn’t have because we didn’t have the money). I was just telling Darrell that now, when I get rid of stuff, I always have this moment where I think about how much money I spent on it, how much money it would be to replace, and how I might never afford to buy another one.

  10. Dawn says

    I have never been a packrat, but as we’ve been preparing to move to Ghana, Africa for 2 yrs., I have been surprised by how much “stuff” we have accumulated over the last 22 yrs. of our marriage. We have done pretty well at letting things go, but I still find myself reluctant to let go of certain things. Some of those have sentimental value (a dresser that was my grandmother’s, etc..). Others, there is no rational reason to be attached, yet I find myself placing an item in our “get rid of box” and then pulling it back out. Wish I could separate mentally from all the stuff!

    • says

      Dawn — wow, you’re moving to Ghana! What an amazing step of faith. I can only imagine that sorting through 22 years worth of things must be an emotional process.
      I can relate with what you said about wishing you could separate mentally from the stuff. When we were packing our car I told my husband that, rationally, I knew we would never be without anything we needed, but that emotionally I felt so devastated by leaving stuff behind. Another reader commented that maybe we transfer our grief about leaving family and friends behind to our stuff and that makes sense to me.

      I’ll say a prayer for you that the transition to Ghana goes well and that God blesses you richly for your sacrifice.

  11. says

    I remember when I had a falling out with a group of friends, I was so eager to throw out all the stuff they gave me (gifts, etc.) and I did. Amazingly, I felt better. There are stuff that are meaningless to us, but there are those who hold a lot of meaning. These stuff aren’t just stuff. They are instead symbols of us. I think in that story of the rich man and Jesus, the rich man’s riches were symbols of his success and are tied to his self-worth. Without them, he was nothing. Jesus wants us to make him the only “thing” that is tied to our self-worth, and not any other material thing. This is hard to swallow especially in our culture that is materialistic to say the least and where folks judge one another by the material possessions one has.
    When it comes to material possessions, I always remind myself of mystics like St. Francis of Assisi or the mystics in India who literally left everything they own and have to seek a simple life with God. They appeared to be happier when they have lost it all. They didn’t even pack light but simply packed nothing at all.

    • says

      Shalom — you make a great point about our stuff being tied to our self worth. Especially in a world of consumerism, it feels like if you don’t drive the right car or wear the right clothes or carry the right purse, you’re less valuable. We can tell ourselves we don’t believe this is true, but it infiltrates our culture so much it’s difficult to really embrace it in the way we live our lives.

  12. says

    Again, what you write is SO timely. 2 days ago I got rid of most of what I own (sold it, gave it to friends, etc.) because I am moving again and can only take about 2 large suitcases worth of stuff. In a way, it felt very good to get rid of the clutter because, after all, it is the start of a new year and a new adventure. It’s funny, though, I found myself a lot more attached to my things this time around, and I have been wondering why. I think it’s because when I moved to Colorado I left most of my possessions at my parents’ place in MA, so I knew I could get them back if I really ‘needed’ them. I think the finality of getting rid of a lot of what I have accumulated in the past 2.5 years was more difficult. This also strikes me as funny because, in America, we can get most things back just by purchasing a new one at the store down the street, you know? Unless it is something truly sentimental (a family heirloom or something), I think getting rid of anything is not really final and can be very, very freeing.

    • says

      Julia — so true that when you can leave your stuff in your parent’s garage, it’s a little easier to leave it behind. One of the things I try to do when I drop things off at Goodwill, or sell them, is to think of the life of that object after it leaves my possession. If it serves a purpose or enriches the life of someone else, it helps me to have a positive feeling about leaving it.
      Major props to you for making such a bold move! Not everyone is brave enough to do that — twice! Good luck in your transition.

  13. Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo) says

    I have a large collection of piano sheet music, most of which I will never play fully & but should anyone try to remove it or our piano they would have to do so with me sobbing & clinging to either of them. There is a deep rooted emotional & intellectual attachment to music & though the material bits are all STUFF, it is so much part of who I am. I really don’t know what I’d do if I had to go somewhere & couldn’t take it with me. Challenging & scary thought!

    • says

      Thanks for sharing Jo! I’m glad I’m not the only one who is attached to my stuff. It does feel like, when you use something over and over again, you develop a sort of spiritual attachment to it. It’s the reason, when we lose a loved one, we keep their things around. It helps us feel connected to them.
      Those connections can get dangerous though if they keep us trapped, keep us from doing what we really want to do with our life. What if you got your dream job, but you had to move across the country to take it? Would you take it all with you? Take some of it? Which ones would you choose? Even if we don’t ever physically get rid of stuff, these are good questions to ask ourselves.

  14. says

    I did the same thing last January moving the opposite direction–from Wisconsin to North Carolina with only the things that could fit in my car. Luckily, I didn’t have to sell/toss the remaining stuff–it’s still in my parents’ basement. For the first three months, I lived with mostly just that stuff not knowing if/when I was moving again. I did end up moving again in 2012 but it wasn’t even worth packing for and now I’ve accumulated a whole lot more stuff. While I don’t look forward to packing again, I do know I could purge a lot of stuff.

    • says

      Katie — isn’t it funny, with how attached we get to our stuff, how quickly we re-accumulate new stuff that we become attached to again? That’s happened to me a couple of times now and it makes me laugh. Sounds like you have a pretty good perspective about it, though. How far are you moving this time?

  15. says

    I like that you bring up the “rich young ruler” — if his stuff had meant nothing, the sacrifice wouldn’t have meant anything either. What rich meaning is added to your sacrifice, because you risked caring about your things.The other side of the coin is giving up ownership of stuff because of a self-righteous attitude. I very much regret getting caught up in some certain verses and giving away most of my stuff away — including all my childhood stuffed animals. I didn’t want to admit that I was attached to my things, protecting myself in a way, creating a facade. It wasn’t healthy. So, I think it is commendable that you are vulnerable enough to admit an attachment to things — the unwillingness to let them go is the sin, not the emotional connection.

    • says

      Charity — that’s a great point. That thought has crossed my mind too, that if it wasn’t difficult to leave my stuff behind, I wouldn’t be making a sacrifice to do what we’re doing. It speaks to the importance of my vision or mission for Prodigal Magazine, and for the life I’m building with my husband that I was wiling to leave everything behind, even though it mattered to me.

  16. says

    I think, for me, getting rid of things as the result of a move is much different than simplifying/decluttering. When you’re forced to get rid of stuff because of a move, there is a great sense of loss involved. Not only might you be losing the comraderie/community of those in your locale, but getting rid of the material possessions is a physical representation of that. Even though those things may not be attached to those relationships, it’s an action that represents the grieving/loss.
    In simplifying, there is often an emotional high involved. I’ve often resolved to make a big change and create space in my life. The decluttering process can feel like a big step forward in that and often holds little emotional attachment for me {says the minimalist}.

    • says

      Keri — I agree. Anytime you’re moving there is a lot of change going on all at the same time, and you feel the gravity of that change. You’re losing a lot of things all at once. It’s always easier to grieve the loss of things one at a time. Like, if you lost your favorite sweater at the park one day, that would be a bummer. But if your whole house burned down, that would be a much greater loss.

  17. Destiny says

    Some of this also reminds me of that horrible Pier One commercial where you buy the stuff that speaks to you. Ridiculous. lol

  18. Heather says

    As I approach 40, I am FINALLY getting what is important and stuff is just stuff for sure. I want less and less as I mature and I want more life to hold onto. My family, my artwork, my pets, my Jeep and a comfy pair of jeans make me happy and complete. (Yes, I know I need a shirt but it’s all metaphorically speaking.) : )

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