I’ve been thinking about a kind of imprisonment many of us struggle against – the cage of material possessions. I’ve dragged around a chain of stuff that has weighed me down as surely as any ship’s anchor. It happened little by little over a period of decades, so I don’t expect I will be able to free myself all at once. I am freer than I once was. I was given the first taste of freedom by the actions of a thief.
When I was 22, I had a good job in a factory. We were able to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment in a moderately safe part of town. I moved in all the possessions acquired from my childhood until then. These were things that had “sentimental value” like letters, photos and a few old, beloved toys. I also had a coin and stamp collection I had worked on as a hobby for about 15 years. Because I got regular, decent-sized paychecks, I decided to buy my first good stereo system. I read magazine reviews about different brands, bought separate components and spent hours carefully stapling the wires under the edges of the carpet where they wouldn’t show.
One day after returning from grocery shopping, we drove up to the building and noticed our back door was open. Upon entering the apartment, we saw that almost the entirety of our material had been removed; clothing, furniture, and the contents of every closet. Three things were left. I had a very cheap guitar, which now lay abandoned on the bedroom floor. The contents of the refrigerator were undisturbed. The hidden wires to the speakers also remained. They had been partially pulled up, but the attempt to remove them had apparently been deemed too difficult or time-consuming. I remember the silver staples littering the carpet of the empty room.
Our two housebound cats had not left, even though their food dishes, toys and litter boxes were also stolen. I was grateful to see them and hugged them until they objected to the excessive affection. I felt violated at first. Every family photo and memento from anyone I had loved was gone. The police dismissed the burglary as “the work of professionals” and declined to take fingerprints or do anything after taking an initial report. We had insurance that paid us for actual value (after depreciation) on what we could prove we had owned, like the new stereo system. But the hours I had spent learning about the stamps and coins of other countries and making friends at trade shows had come to an end of utter futility. And I had no tangible record of who I had been, or of those I had known.
As we shopped for new furniture and clothing I began to feel an unexpected lightness. In some indefinable way I had been freed from a previous life. I no longer felt tied to my past mistakes. My crimes and misdemeanors had vanished with my possessions and the evidence of my past identity and associates. I thought about Buddha’s teaching that all human problems originate from some form of desire. The solution he advocated was non-attachment to the material world. If you own nothing, nothing can be stolen from you. Your sole possession is your own personhood, the being you have made yourself. You will be free to enrich and add to that.
Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t lived a possession-free life since, but I think about consciously divesting myself of material things almost every day. A recent trip to Seattle brought me into contact with another prisoner of the material world.
We stayed at a luxury hotel because I hadn’t planned far enough ahead and there were no cheap rooms near where we wanted to go. Late at night I tried to figure out how to plug in a headphone to the TV and ended up pushing some button that disabled it. An “engineer” was dispatched to our room to fix things. The young woman who arrived was terrified. She kept apologizing profusely. She was unfortunately also incompetent, and kept repeating trips through the same onscreen menus that didn’t affect the problem. She left and got a different remote control (which I knew would solve nothing), and her level of barely-contained hysteria increased. After a half-hour of fruitless efforts I declined her offer to go get a different TV and told her we would fix it in the morning.
I believed I was observing someone in acute fear of losing her job. She was already assigned to the shift after midnight, when fewer requests for assistance are made. Perhaps she had been under-qualified or had obtained the job under false pretenses. That she didn’t know the first thing about navigating through the menus of a digital TV was the only thing I was certain of. Her visible level of fear made me reluctant to ask anything more of her. When I reopened the matter with the concierge in the morning, that person said no service call had been reported from the night before. The “engineer” had apparently been trying to avoid any knowledge of the event. I passed it off as being of no importance, and they sent someone up who fixed the TV while we were at breakfast.
It’s a terrible thing to live in irrational fear of losing a job you deem too important, as if you will be unable to get another. There’s ALWAYS another job. Even if you don’t get to do something in the field you prefer, you can always get a job doing what most people dislike. Most people prefer not to wipe the butts of dying people. Because I decided not to mind (and because I like people, no matter what smells are involved) I’ll always have a job as long as I’m strong enough to do it. I certainly wouldn’t live in abject fear of broken TVs and hotel guests, even if I were paid more than I get for care-giving.
It all comes back to the attitude of non-attachment. It does not mean not caring. It means you try not to become overly obligated to the material you acquire. For breakfast we went to a café near Pike Place Market. As the strong coffee lifted my mood out of the morning grayness, I experienced two feelings simultaneously. I was enjoying watching the faces and the movement of the vast and varied crowd engaged in the most ancient of social activities; buying and selling. And I was sad, thinking of all the things we convince ourselves we must have, and how some young woman was probably at that moment needlessly suffering, waiting for a reprimand (or worse) from her employer.