What Do We Really Need?

October 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm (By Amba)

Serious question, provoked by moving and discovering with dismay — disgust — how much stuff, junk, crap we still have.

If the fire had consumed it all or I’d just walked away and let it be steamshoveled into a dumpster, some precious souvenirs would have been lost.  But those few gems are embedded in a rubble of unmatched gloves, staples to fit lost staplers, multiple winter coats in a climate that never needs them, cheap purses, clothes that stopped fitting J a decade ago, books just for books’ sake, unread back issues of The New Yorker, Christmas labels for an obsolete address …

Every move is an opportunity to throw stuff out, yet somehow there never seems to be less of it; there never seems to be little enough.  What would be little enough?

Our volunteer friend from hospice wrote a memoir for his family which he titled I Wish You Enough. In the dedication he explains that the concept

has a special meaning to me and other Swedish-speaking people because of the word lagom.  To my knowledge there is no one-word translation in other European languages for lagom.  The best corresponding phrases would be “just enough,” “just right,” “just adequate,” or “just sufficient.”  Lagom implies that we do not need an abundance or oversupply of anything.  “Just enough (lagom) is best” is a very popular philosophy in Sweden.

What do we really need?  What is the bare minimum we could live with?

I thought of the Buddhist monk who has taken vows of poverty and owns nothing but his robe and a begging bowl, perhaps disposable palm-leaf sandals, a staff that doubles for self-defense, and perhaps a mala or rosary as an aid to recitation of sutras.  Of course to subsist with only a bowl presupposes the existence of a whole society with pots, ladles, and food to put in them.

I asked the question on Twitter:

amba12 What do we really really need? Help me make a list. A bowl, a spoon…well, let’s say a mess kit. 2 pr pants, 2 shirts, 2 undies…a Kindle?

(Moving will do this to you:  I’m warming to the idea of having all your books in something the size of one book, and being able to delete the ones that have proven themselves inessential by pressing a button, instead of by lugging them in a cardboard box to a thrift sale.)

Got some provocative answers:

BXGD A knife, a bit of rope, and no fear.

chickelit NEEDS: intangibles: negotiating/bargaining skills; tangibles: clothes on our back, good health.

RuthAnneAdams Mother Theresa had a cardigan sweater, sandals, a well-worn Rosary. I should be so blessed to die with so little.

(She who dies with the fewest toys, wins?)

Michael_Haz A shot glass, a wineglass, a corkscrew. All belong on the list.

This in turn has provoked afterthoughts and branching conversations, which you can follow at the links above:  Ruth Anne disagrees that good health is a sine qua non; Michael provides confirmatory examples — Stephen Hawking, late John Paul II.  The question ramifies:  a kidney dialysis machine could be essential if it is keeping a great light burning.

I still maintain that I want one change of clothes (one to wear while I wash the other), a mess kit (a cup, a bowl, a plate/pan, a knife, fork, and spoon), a notebook and a pen.

(Michael, the cup will double as a wineglass.  I’ll depend on the existence of a whole society with bottles and corkscrews.  I bought a bottle of wine the other night and then realized that I haven’t yet rescued my corkscrew.  But guess what?  It has a screw cap.)

Please have at it.


  1. Camie Vog said,

    I’m not sure if this counts, but the first thing that came to me was my family. It took me 41yrs to realize I need their input.

    Next: My blanket, iPod, a pair of jeans, 2 shirts, a cup, and LOVE.

  2. pathmv said,

    I’m hoping I have the discipline to toss out a WHOLE lot of stuff when I move back in to my place. We were so busy saving everything from further damage last year after the hurricane that I didn’t have time to cull much then. If it was dry, into the box it went!

  3. Melinda said,

    A bed and two cats.

  4. michael reynolds said,

    An American Express card, an iPhone and the car.

    Katherine does this exercise at Home Of The Brave events — it’s about a Sudanese refugee — where she puts 60 seconds on a clock, sound effects of gunfire, and tells the kids to make a list of what they’ll take when they flee.

  5. amba12 said,

    And? What do they say?

  6. Icepick said,

    books just for books’ sake

    That’s called a LIBRARY, and it is civilization’s greatest invention.

    [More contrariness will follow, if I have the energy following an episode of The Prisoner and after following the nine bank failures annnounced this evening.]

  7. amba12 said,

    Nine, count ’em, nine!

    Being between two covers and having a bunch of pages doesn’t make an object sacred.
    Plenty of books are forgettable, and should and will be forgotten. Spoken to self by a book addict who has trouble parting with any of them and has the consequent lumbago from toting boxes of them.

  8. amba12 said,

    In a fleeing situation, I would take something to write with and something to write on.

  9. michael reynolds said,

    They want their pets and their phones. She likes to point out that the pet is a great option if you actually were in Sudan because then you could eat the pet.


  10. Icepick said,

    Plenty of books are forgettable, and should and will be forgotten.

    But do any of us know which is which?

    As for the iPod – what good is it without a working power outlet? How would that work without a vast industrial infrastructure to support it? And don’t give me the solar power dodge, either. Those also have to be built, as does the iPod and the software to run it and the computer with which to store the iTunes library, etc., etc. We’re in the information age, babies, and we need all the crap we can get our hands on just to keep the thing moving forward.

  11. amba12 said,

    We are single votes in the collective memory that decides which books will be remembered and which forgotten.

    And, yes. I often wonder what we’ll do if/when the grid goes down, and there are no (well, not “no”) newspapers or libraries. This all seems awfully tenuous to me, depending as it does on a vast and vulnerable electric and electronic infrastructure. And then there is our even more humiliating dependence on the battery. As I have stated elsewhere, whoever cuts or even lengthens that leash will be a culture hero on the scale of Prometheus.

  12. Peter Hoh said,

    I’m frustrated with libraries too often culling good books because they happen to be older, and space is wanting.

    I have suffered too many moves during which we did not cull, but in haste threw things in boxes, and didn’t have the nerve to drive to the dump before heading to our new home.

    In the garage and in the attic, there are boxes of stuff that seemed important when we left Pennsylvania in 1995.

  13. amba12 said,

    And the trouble is, about 15% of it still is, and if you just throw the boxes out you’ll lose that. But there’s no time to go through and find it. Hence …

  14. Donna B. said,

    Excess clothing is the most expendable of all… I say this having a closet full of clothes I will never wear again…

    Anything of utility – cookware, china, etc. Yes, it’s meaningful at times because it belonged to Grandma… but it is ultimately meaningless. It pains me to write this. I have the crystal bell my great-grandmother used to summon my grandmother when she needed something. This is meaningful to me, but I will not suffer if I lose it.

    It is the memory of its use that I need, not the physical bell.

    Yet, is is important to be able to pass a possession from one generation to the next. Photographs, to me, are the most important thing… but that is perhaps because the one thing I salvaged from a house fire was photographs.

    They are singed at the edges giving them a truly antique look… and in some way that adds to their value. They survived, therefore they are important.

    But that makes no sense. Though I am happy to have photos of my children at a young age, the existence of the photo does not add to the wonder of their current existence.

    Yet, I admire and appreciate in ways I can’t express the diligence of an aunt who solicited and kept photos of our ancestors dating back to the 1880s. Had that collection been destroyed when our house burned… what would I have thought then? And would I have mourned such a loss in my 20s as I might in my late 50s?

    The tension between the past and the future will… in almost every case favor the future. In those few case in which it does not… there lies the lesson we need to learn.

  15. Ron said,

    Grab your last possessions, the grid might go down, the nukes are flying, yadda, yadda, yadda…I find the whole thread/idea an odd one….”If you just happened to be set on fire, what’s the minimum amount of flesh you wouldn’t mind losing?” Am I greedy to answer this question with “ummm…zero please?”

    How many or how items you own may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed up world, and maybe that Buddhist monk greedily holds onto his staff and bowl more than Charles Foster Kane held on to Xanadu. Maybe it aint the items but the person.

    We own what we own, a lot or a little, so worry more about you than the items.

  16. amba12 said,

    The tension between the past and the future will… in almost every case favor the future. In those few case in which it does not… there lies the lesson we need to learn.

    Wise . . .

  17. amba12 said,

    maybe that Buddhist monk greedily holds onto his staff and bowl more than Charles Foster Kane held on to Xanadu.

    Likewise . . .

  18. amba12 said,

    The point of this odd thread is to provoke such comments. (Ha ha, gotcha!)

    But really . . . why do we accumulate instead of stripping down?

    As I get older I feel both impulses. It’s hard for me to trash the most trivial e-mail or old letter from someone I care about . . . almost superstitiously so. Yet there are few, almost no, material possessions I couldn’t walk away from.

    An iPhone or iPod or laptop isn’t exactly a material possession. It isn’t the thing itself (well, maybe in the case of the iPhone fetish it is) but what it transmits. It’s like an extra sense or an auxiliary mind or something. What’s a good name for things like that?

  19. Ron said,

    But really . . . why do we accumulate instead of stripping down?

    As Designated Trooper York, I say that stripping down as all about the below the navel action, while this thread is ‘above the navel’. Or something.

  20. El Pollo Real said,

    There was a time when i could fit everything I cared about into a suitcase. Literally: when I moved to Europe after grad school in 1990, I did that. Sure, I left behind a couple of sticks of furniture that I thought I might care about later (nobody is immune to accumulation) but today, I actually don’t have any of those things.

    I’m thinking now of what I had in that suitcase that I still have: clothes: fungible things that have morphed with time into other clothes; some books that I actually still do have: (e.g., I’ve lugged around a copy of the “Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology” now for 30 years or so).

    Nowadays, I’m more dismayed with the number of things that surround and pass through me. I’ve married since Europe, and have two kids, and so, a certain accumulation is inevitable. I try to teach my kids about waste, but still, I’m more shocked each week when the trash goes (it’s my job to put it out there on the curb) with the amount of stuff that my household disposes.

    Still, the biggest suitcase that I carry is my baggage of recollections; and I do not travel light.

  21. pathmv said,


  22. pathmv said,

    After my grandfather passed away, I cleared out his desk. In a file, I found the receipt for the $5 deposit he had to pay to get the gas cut on… at the house where they lived when my father was born. He had held on to that yellowing scrap of paper for about 60 years.

  23. El Pollo Real said,

    P.S. I forgot to mention that I did buy into a house. We all need a place to physically dwell right? And I gather that dwelling has to do with Amba’s post. But what is a house other than a shell or container for things we have?

    I/we did not buy foolishly. I’m tempted to pay-off the remaining debt we owe on our “shell” with accumulated savings (I could do this tomorrow with my 401k, with penalty of course) but why? Give me a good reason people.

  24. William O'blivion. said,

    A first aid kit and a .38. A sturdy, comfortable pair of shoes, some trousers and a shirt.

    I need to have now what I’ll need tomorrow, but won’t have the time to acquire when I need it. This is where the accumulation starts.

    I need to feed my kid, so I need money. I need money so I need a job, so I need mad ‘l33t skillz. And I need someone to take care of her when I cannot–because the weird collection mad ‘l33t skillz mean I am most economically viable in places one should not take a precocious, pretty, blond child. So I have to keep the wife. This is complex.

    And I have to think of tomorrow and the day after.

    Because for now a sturdy, comfortable pair of shoes, some trousers and a shirt is enough, but you never know what tomorrow is going to bring, and if you’re not prepared those you love may die.

    So we pack it away.

  25. Rod said,

    What we need depends on context. To survive in the woods, clothes (including a watertight parka), a knife, a fishhook, water or purification tablets, and something with which to start a fire would be essentials. You might consider a first aid kit, mosquito repellent, and a sleeping bag.

    If you are diabetic, you might need insulin. If you are in the Alaskan wild in winter, gloves and a very warm coat would be essential. If you are riding the rails, hobos typically carried a can opener and a pot in which they could make a stew.

    We accumulate far more than we need. Some of it is saving for contingencies. Some of it is putting off decisions. It is one thing to throw away a shirt that doesn’t fit, but quite another to rigorously go through your entire wardrobe.

  26. Melinda said,

    And the trouble is, about 15% of it still is, and if you just throw the boxes out you’ll lose that.

    My ongoing exercise for the past two years has been to whittle stuff down to that 15%.

    The latest part is that I’m working on getting the landlord (with maybe a little help from HPD) to fix my warped bedroom floor, which will necessitate getting everything out of the bedroom and fitting it elsewhere in my 300 sq-ft apartment. This furniture Rubik’s cube will be easier to manage by having less stuff, or by parting with some of my old furniture and replacing a couple of pieces when the money is coming in again.

    Hence, the bed and two cats. But the cats can fit places you didn’t think they could.

    BTW, Michael, now I know what to threaten Chico and Ashley with. “How would you like to be lunch in the Sudan?”

  27. Randy said,

    And the trouble is, about 15% of it still is, and if you just throw the boxes out you’ll lose that.

    That’s what happened when I moved from Portland. Thought I was throwing away a box of old newspapers and magazines dating back to the Kennedy Assassination. Later discovered that I’d thrown out my childhood (school photos, report cards, newspaper clippings, letters while living overseas, etc.) and still had the newspapers and magazines. It was four or five years before I discovered the error. Oh, well.

  28. amba said,

    Rod — I thought I had gone through my wardrobe rigorously when we moved down here from NYC. Think again!!

  29. amba said,

    Randy — throwing out your childhood, irrevocably, is pretty bad. As regrets go, it beats throwing out your child, though.

  30. Donna B. said,

    Is anyone else here in the position of caring for other’s memories? Physically, I mean. I had just accomplished the transfer of most of the stuff my children left behind, when their grandparents and great-grandparents began to die, and their stuff got moved in.

    I suppose being so interested in genealogy has made me more interested in the possessions of previous generations.

    For my youngest daughter’s birthday last year, I gave her the perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet passed down to my mother from her mother. It’s possible it was passed down to my grandmother, but we don’t know that.

    Still waiting to be transported to her house is her grandmother’s cedar chest and the rocking chair my parents bought for me when she was born.

    At one point, we housed four children and two adults here. Now, so much “stuff” has been inherited in some or another, that we are running out of room for two adults!

    My husband and I both suffer from severe packrattiness.

  31. Randy said,

    Amba: As I hadn’t looked in the box more than twice in 20+ years, and didn’t notice I’d thrown it out until 4 or 5 years later, one would think it wasn’t really that big a deal. And, in the big scheme of things, it is not. But, I admit to being pretty bummed out about it at the time and for some time thereafter whenever I thought about what was no longer there.

  32. realpc said,

    Like everything it’s a question of balance. Material possessions can be a source of lasting joy, and they can also be meaningless clutter. Some things are just very useful to have, and some are very pleasurable to have. I am thinking of my musical instruments and music books, for example. I am not a good American because I don’t buy every new gadget that comes out, and unless someone gave me one I probably don’t have it. I agree that getting addicted to acquiring possessions, even though it makes you a good American, is a kind of sickness. But on the other hand, things can be beautiful. They can be works of art, or just pretty. I hardly spend any money on clothes, but I can understand why someone would. People naturally want to be admired.

    Buddha and Jesus Christ were trying to escape the world, so they did not care about social status or earthly pleasures. They were aiming for something which, they felt, was infinitely more valuable. But most of us want to have a nice time here on earth also, just in case there isn’t something wonderful waiting. Or even if there is — maybe it’s possible to have both. Buddha and Christ would probably say no, you can either have your happiness now or later

    Mother Theresa got her status from being selfless, ironically. She was showered with status and admiration, and from what I heard she had an ego.

    None of us can escape the need for status and approval, of some kind. We can get it by being good and kind, or by being talented and successful, but either way we are still all status-seekers. Unless, of course we are real Christians, in which case our status is delayed for the next world. Jesus said the least in this world will be the greatest in the next — NOT that everyone will be equal.

  33. amba said,

    My mother is said to have unsentimentally thrown out a bunch of our childhood stuff — without asking us. Maybe that’s the only way to do it. But it’s why I hated being a child — being at someone else’s mercy. And a rather capricious and autocratic someone else at that.

  34. Bobby said,

    After Hurricane Charlie hit Punta Gorda, I went in to help deliver supplies. Of that whole time of seeing total devestation, one scene is burned into my mind. I saw an old lady in front of her totally destroyed house the day after the hurricane mowing about 100 square feet of lawn. When asked what she needed, she replied nothing. When asked what she was doing, she replied: “Today is the day I mow the lawn.”

    If, and when, the whole world goes to hell in a hand basket, I would hope I have that woman’s strength.

  35. Ruth Anne said,


    Here’s the Dave Ramsey answer to your question. There are 7 baby steps. Paying off the house early is baby step #6. NEVERNEVERNEVER cash in a 401 K unless it is to avoid a bankruptcy because the penalty is too high.

    Here are the baby steps and there’s a whole book [The Total Money Make-over] describing how and why each is in the place it’s in.
    1. Get $1000 cash as an emergency fund
    2. Pay off all debt [credit cards, student loans, etc] with the debt snowball
    3. Save 3-6 months of expenses to have a fully funded emergency fund
    4. Invest 15% of all earnings in matching plan, then Roth IRA. ALL growth of this fund is tax-free because you are investing after-tax dollars.
    5. Save for kids’ college [talk them off the ledge of Ivy League level price tags.]
    6. Pay off home early
    7. Accumulate wealth and Give!

    College comes after retirement because one cannot retire on one’s kid’s diplomas. Also, house gets paid off last because to pay it off early at the expense of an emergency fund just makes the house the non-liquid asset you go into debt on when an emergency arises [usually under a home improvement loan.] And when you’re in trouble, the LAST thing you want is more debt.

    He’s awesome and the plan is the crock-pot way of getting rich [i.e. NOT a microwave get-rich-quick scheme]. Wish I’d known him 15 years ago.

  36. amba said,

    What’s “the debt snowball”?

  37. michael reynolds said,

    A debt snowball? It’s a sex act involving a guy, a girl, and a MasterCard.

  38. Ron said,

    Didn’t Belushi croak from a debt snowball? Or was that a debt hairball?

  39. amba said,

    I was going to add snow to Michael’s list. They were something-balls that Belushi died of — hardballs? rollerballs?

  40. Randy said,

    IIRC, a “snowball” is a mixture of heroin and cocaine and, yes, that is what Belushi overdosed on.

  41. Ruth Anne said,

    Y’all are funny. The debt snowball consists of lining up all your debts from smallest to largest [forget about the interest rate]. Pay minimums on all but the smallest. Throw everything extra at that bill. When it’s paid off, go to the next bill, paying all you did on the first and anything extra you can, keeping all others to minimums….continue on to the next….see how this debt-paying off thing snowballs? It’s the same principle as a weight-loss program. Getting rid of the small debts shows initial progress and helps keep the intensity up.

    Also, a tip we learned through this process. If you’re going to pay an extra $400 a month, it’s MUCH better to pay an extra $100/week because of the dreaded ‘average daily balance’ problem with many credit cards.

  42. El Pollo Real said,

    And here I thought “debt snowballing” had something to do with credit default swapping.

    Ruth Anne, thank you for your (er, Dave Ramsey’s) sage advice. Though I usually label individuals commercially poised as experts (and thus shun them) he seems to be doing no harm. I’m sure you will wind up far wealthier than I. :)

    We’ve never abused credit cards in our house and only rarely even carried a balance. We do use them religiously and my wife accrued enough milage on our United account to earn flights to Amsterdam next year. I wonder how long the CC companies will offer such perks?

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