A few months ago, I wrote an article for an online publication. Unfortunately, they never got around to using it and now that it's officially summer, it's no longer applicable content. But since I really enjoyed writing it, and was pleased with how it turned out, I felt that it was worth sharing in one way or another. As a brief background to give you a frame of reference for reading, this article was written on March 21st of 2014 — one day after the first day of Spring — and at the time of writing I was still living in Pittsburgh.
I hope you enjoy...
Poor Rich “The thing that’s most important to me is whatever I need the most at any given time.” An honest answer to an honest question — “for a homeless person, what is the most important thing to have? So, if you knew that all the time there would be a place or person that would always have this particular item that you consider most important, what would you want that meets your most immediate needs the best?” This was a conversation that took place between me and Rich on a frigid January morning. Rich is a homeless man here in Pittsburgh. He is currently “residing” in a neighborhood called Oakland, where the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are located. I’ve had the privilege of sharing food and conversation with Rich several times. From what I can gather from our conversations, Rich has been homeless for the better part of the past 30 years, having spent about 20 of those years in Pittsburgh. Although I have never been homeless, I feel confident in asserting that it is a significant challenge, and that being homeless in the dead of winter, in Pittsburgh, is a different kind of challenge altogether. In fact, one of the last times I spoke with Rich was the day before the Polar Vortex first swept through the Northeast. Our conversation ended abruptly because a van from a local homeless shelter drove by and insisted that they take him in for the night — being that any homeless person left on the street in the -32 °F wind chill would not survive into the morning. However, Rich has always seemed to have a surprisingly upbeat attitude, always willing to engage in very open and honest, yet lighthearted, chit chat, despite the daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute challenges that he faces living on the streets. And cracking an occasional joke, he’ll remind you that the irony is not lost on him that he is a poor person who goes by the name “Rich”. I’ve not seen Rich in a little while, but lately I’ve been thinking about him often and his philosophy towards his very minimal belongings. You see, in the next few weeks my wife and I will be making a move to South Carolina — our third move to a different state in the past 5 years. It would be an understatement to say that I hate moving more than hearing someone in live, verbal conversation utter the abbreviation “OMG” - it’s the same amount of syllables, folks! However, one positive thing that moving does always seem to accomplish is making you take stock of everything that you have — because the reality, perhaps unfortunately, is that we have a lot of stuff. Released in 2009, a fascinating film documentary by Gary Hustwit called Objectified explores the origins, purpose, and effects of industrial design and the resulting objects that fill our daily lives. These objects being the “stuff” I’m referring to. However, the question here is not one of some kind of inherent evil of these objects or the fact that anyone possesses them. After all, toothbrushes are stuff, beds are stuff, sweaters and jackets are stuff — all of these items designed and mass-produced with an end-user in mind who probably already owns a toothbrush, a bed and warm clothes, but few would argue that dental hygiene, sleep, and warmth are unimportant. The question at hand is one of accumulation and of necessity or, rather, the lack thereof. In the documentary, a world-renowned designer named Marc Newson speaks to the burden that he feels as a designer to “offer products that you want to keep — products that you feel, most importantly, will stand the test of time — that hopefully won’t date as badly as other things.” However, his burden is not in relation to an effort towards durability or sustainability. Instead, it’s about answering his own internal question of what will make somebody more interested in his product over somebody else's? — “because it’s all about wanting new things isn’t it? I mean, ultimately we could all be using the mobile phones we had three years ago but we’ve all had about five in the meantime.” This is where the tension lies — what do I want versus what do I need? Further complicating matters is the fact that neither “want” nor “need” are easy to define and most of the time they end up finding a way to overlap. For example, perhaps I am need of a vehicle to get from my home to my workplace each day, but does that vehicle need to be a $475,000 Rolls-Royce or would that simply be something that I want? As evidenced by my homeless acquaintance, Rich, needs greatly differ from person to person as well. Rich doesn’t need a vehicle to get to work. Subsequently, he doesn’t need auto insurance, gasoline, windshield wiper fluid, etc. Granted, most people, including myself, would consider their needs to be quite different from Rich’s, but the lesson here from his example should not be discounted because, at the most basic level, everyone’s needs are the same — simply put, survival. One of the most enlightening things Rich ever shared with me is his ultimate philosophy towards his possessions - “people try to give me things all the time, but I only take something if it’s better than what I have.” Rich doesn’t have storage units or closets. He doesn’t have refrigerators to keep food cold so that they will stay fresh if he has a surplus. He has to consider only in any given moment what he needs right then. Although the average American does have the capacity for storage and, in fact, still finds the need to rent additional storage for the things that we might need 10 years from now, imagine how wonderful it would be to be completely content in simply meeting your needs — no more, no less. Perhaps the only caveat being when you find something that could meet your needs better. In light of the Spring season that has just dawned on us, there seems to be no better time to reexamine ourselves and the objects that we surround ourselves with. What are the items that are enriching our lives and what are the items that are simply cluttering our lives? After all, Spring is all about renewal — stripping away the old so that something fresh and new can replace it. I encourage you this season, instead of seeking new things to find fulfillment, seek contentment in the absence of an abundance and embrace the “newness” that provides.