The Unencumbered Life

Are the things we own blessings or burdens? Actually, do we own our stuff at all, or does it own us?

The New York Times ran a wild story this weekend about a French tech entrepreneur living in the U.S. who has had a very unusual mid-life crisis. With an estimated net worth of 100 million dollars, Fabrice Grinda came to feel that all the great stuff he owned had become a burden that was actually keeping him from the more important things in life. So he decided to downsize radically and experience an unencumbered existence. He moved out of his huge mansion that sits on 20 acres of land in New York state, got rid of his $300,000 McLaren sports car, released his $13,000-a-month apartment in the City, gave away tons of stuff, and kept only what he could fit into a roller bag suitcase and a backpack. He decided that he'd simply be a free spirit nomad and go live with his friends, one at a time, enjoying their company, rather than all that stuff. Having shed his physical burdens, however, he quickly became a major burden to each of those friends.

It seems that the wealthy man didn't do his own laundry, or make his own bed when he stayed with friends. He liked to talk loud, stay up really late, and eat everything in their refrigerators. He ended up giving all of them their own crises and learning as a result that the unencumbered life wasn't as easy as he had imagined.

This past week, I read several short novels by John Steinbeck, including the very funny Tortilla Flat, and the almost equally amusing Cannery Row, both of which are about groups of poor but festive characters in and around Monterey, California, in the early days of the 20th century. They had no regular jobs, often slept in the woods, or in old, run down buildings that others provided, and managed to "find" food and wine on a fairly regular basis. They were scoundrels with hearts of gold. They lived off the generosity of their neighbors, but somehow thought of themselves as the real community benefactors. Their unencumbered lives gave them a special freedom, at least in their own minds. As you read their stories, you can't quite decide whether they present an extreme yet attractive ideal of the free spirit, or are really just completely irresponsible social parasites, living as slaves to their own peculiar instabilities and passing appetites, while depending on the charity, or gullibility, of others to support them.

Both the stories of Steinbeck and the peculiar tale of Fabrice Grinda raise the question: Are the things we own indeed blessings or burdens? Do we actually have possession of them, or do they have possession of us? Are the many responsibilities of ownership to be avoided or embraced?

You may not be surprised to hear that most of the great practical philosophers have said, "It depends." On what? Attitude and intent. Your proclivities, enjoyments, and tolerances. I've known people with four or five big houses. They seemed unburdened by the responsibility. They knew how to manage the complexity. They thoroughly enjoyed what they had. And it didn't at all appear to constrain their freedom. There are, of course, also big moral issues deep in the background, behind all lavish lifestyles, matters of global scope and existential perplexity, but my friends have seemed unburdened by those, as well. We can't solve all the world's problems. But we can solve some of our own.

The point of responsibility is to grow us as souls. Our commitments, to people, endeavors, and things, form us. We can make bad commitments or good ones. How do they function in our lives? That's the central question. It's all about functionality. Can we do great and valuable things with the people, endeavors, and things in our lives? Do they serve to enrich us, or to burden us? The things we own need to be maintained, repaired, protected, and, of course, used. And we all differ as to where the point is that this becomes a problem rather than something we can enjoy. We typically don't discover our limits in such matters except by crossing them and finally seeing them from the other side. That's part of what keeps fantasy alive for those who haven't reached their limits, yet.

Throughout history, ascetics have believed that the path to salvation lies in ridding ourselves of all our stuff and then opening ourselves to the spirit. But as a philosopher, I believe that the second, and ultimately important, activity does not depend on the first. Physical things can become a spiritual obstacle, but they need not be, in proper measure and with the right role in our lives.

The Oracle at Delphi proclaimed, "Nothing in Excess." What counts as excess for you? Are you living on the far side of it, and suffering from that? Do you need to make some adjustments? Fabrice Grinda came to believe he needed to make a radical change. But like many, he went too far, and has been schooled, as a result, in moderation. I guess that's hard when your finances tell you anything's possible. But regardless of what our net worth might whisper to us, many good things are possible, and they depend on our own discernment, a function of wisdom. It's the path of wisdom to choose properly. Don't let a culture of materialism dictate your life and put you in chains. And it's just as important to avoid false fantasies of freedom. Pick your own proper way. And that, ultimately, depends on the Oracle's second main injunction, "Know Yourself."