On 5 October 2012 we had a house fire. My husband, our then-7-year-old son, and I were out of town when we got the call. The fire had started in the laundry room and spread quickly to the garage, so we lost most of the art, clothing, sports gear, baby clothes, and Christmas decorations that we stored there. But fortunately the firefighters managed to save the house and our beloved cat, who was inside. Our furniture and possessions were smoke-damaged, though, and our insurance company paid to have them cleaned and returned to us in the house we ended up renting. What they delivered to us was literally hundreds of boxes of books, papers, toys, and kitchenware, and pile upon pile of clothes. How could we still have so much stuff?
I have always tried to live fairly simply, but our culture drives us to consume. I am as guilty as the next person of buying too much, either in the hope of making myself feel or look better, or to make my life simpler or more convenient. Right after the fire, it became clear to me that we as a family had acquired too much over the years and needed to reduce it before we moved back to our home. I gave away piles of clothes to our local thrift store, and we held two separate yard sales. A year and a half later, after we moved back to our rebuilt home, we had yet another yard sale, but despite these purges our home is always cluttered with piles of objects. Our house was originally built in the 1930s and so has very little storage space, because back then people had few extra belongings. I longed to live that way, without excess or clutter weighing me down. So on 1 January 2015 I made a commitment not only to reduce my consumption, but also to choose something to give away every day for a year and to write about the process in a daily blog called “My Daily Giveaway” (mehermc.com).
Although my primary goal in this process was to get rid of unnecessary belongings, I also wanted to make the project about the act of giving. And because I was not simply getting rid of things but gifting them, I wanted to do so thoughtfully, recognizing the past value of the objects and honoring the people to whom I was giving them. It has now been over nine months since I began the project. I have given away roughly 300 items (some days I’ve given multiple items) to friends, family members, strangers, and charities. Sometimes the process has become a little obsessive as I try to figure out my gift for the day, and some days I don’t have the energy or creativity to give or write something original or witty. However, the process of giving on a daily basis has been rewarding in more ways than I could have anticipated.
My favorites are the gifts to my friends and family. I try to choose something to suit the person or to fit a need the person might have expressed, and I am delighted when I manage to get the gift right. Some of my gifts have been to thrift stores, schools, and charitable organizations. Although these gifts are not very personal, I know that someone out there will benefit from the object or the money raised from selling it. Others I have given to strangers in shops or left by the side of the path when I go out for my daily walk; from those gifts I have the satisfaction of seeing the surprised smile of the stranger in the store or of imagining someone’s mood lifting as they discover an unexpected gift.
I knew that I would be pleased to get rid of things and have more space in the house, but I have been surprised at some of the changes going on inside me. One large change is that the more I give, the less I feel the need to “get.” The joy that I would feel when I bought myself a little treat has been largely (but not entirely!) replaced by the joy I feel in giving. And there is scientific research to explain why giving can make you happier. A quantum physics researcher, Paul Pearsall, conducted a study showing the physiological effects of giving on the brain and found that when a person extends kindness to another it naturally increases the production of endorphins in the “giver’s” brain. It also showed that giving increases the endorphins in the brain of the “receiver” and even in the brain of any third party “observer.” I have experienced all of this in my own project. I love the giving part, and most of the people (but not all, I have to admit!) to whom I’ve given something have enjoyed the receiving part. Almost everyone I’ve told about the project has smiled just at the concept.
The second part of my “Giveaway” project is the daily writing of the blog about the gift. Usually it’s evening by the time I sit down and write my daily blogpost. During that time I sit and think about that person, what makes them so special, how they have enriched my life, and how perhaps this can be represented by what I gave them. In the case of some of the non-profit organizations I have given to, I am awed by the efforts of others to give their time, ideas, and energy to making the world a better place. Repeating this process of acknowledging goodness over the last few months has aroused in me a tremendous sense of gratitude for the people and organizations in my life. Over the months, as I shed my material possessions, I can feel my gratitude growing, filling in the space once occupied by objects. As a middle-aged woman trying to juggle career, family, and the aging process, I am regularly frustrated with aspects of my life. I know that in a few months, when I finish this project, I will still have too much stuff and not enough gratitude for what’s good in my life. However, the acts of shedding excess material belongings and of taking time to remember and document what is truly precious in my life are an extremely potent form of meditation.