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To Have and Have Not

Obsess, possess, regret. It’s a pattern anybody who is not up for canonization is familiar with. Anything from relationships to Louis Vuitton luggage (which, unless you fly private jet, is like putting a sign on your bags saying, “Steal Me!”) can stir up these feelings. We’ve all been through having to have something, getting it, and then experiencing the regret of not wanting it after all, or of losing it. Buyer’s remorse and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin. Owning/possessing something is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The famous quote from the movie “Fight Club” — “The things you own end up owning you” — resonated for a lot of people. When the lead character’s apartment blows up and his charred yin-yang coffee table ends up on the street 22 floors below, I was among the viewers for whom the first thought was, “Horrible!” But the second thought, “How freeing!” began to find a fingernail hold.

We all have stories of precious possessions lost. These experiences make some people clutch on to what’s left all the tighter. Others may grieve the loss, but find a lesson in the impermanence of material things and the mutability of ownership. The experience gives these people the opportunity to live a lighter, freer life. They actually enjoy the things they have so much more because the fear of losing them is gone; all that is left is the enjoyment that they experience in having them for the moment.

Superstorm Sandy is on my mind as I write this. Many people have lost a lifetime of possessions in a few short hours. The few things that survive the disaster will take on a new vividness. The dining table. A few photographs. Some clothing that can be laundered. Some dishes and utensils. These things will become the building blocks of a fresh start.

An exercise to do if you are having trouble letting go of things that no longer serve you is to put yourself in a disaster victim’s shoes. What would you miss? What would totally devastate you to lose? What would be hard to literally live without because you use it daily?

Two experiences helped me let go of attachment to material possessions tremendously. I was  burglarized in 1986 and was relieved of my TV, stereo and jewelry. Oddly, they also took my vacuum attachments. Although I tightened up security after the burglary, I was burgled twice more. They kept taking my boom box (this was the 1980s) until finally I quit replacing it. It was an, “If I don’t have it, I can’t lose it,” mentality, which is not the same thing as non-attachment. But it was the best I could do.

In 1992, the San Francisco apartment I lived in was part of a three-building fire. When I saw the flames licking the sill of my third-story window, I grabbed two things and never looked back. The first item was a painting my great-grandmother brought with her from Italy at the turn of the last century and the second was a down comforter I had just spent $300 on. I made it downstairs unscathed and felt good about my choices. An heirloom and a comforter seemed like a good foundation for a fresh start.

As it turned out, my apartment only partially burned and much of my stuff was undamaged. Being on the third floor when the fire started on the bottom turned out to be my saving grace. All those trips up three flights of stairs with groceries were worth it. But I’d had a very real glimpse of, “What if it were all gone?”

Going back into the smoky apartment and moving to a new place, I felt so much less attachment to the “stuff.” It was a minor occurrence, a blip, compared to the hell that survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima and now Sandy are going through, but I wish for them, after the grieving that will have to happen, a perspective shift about material goods that will help them to make a new beginning.