Growing up, I pored over the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, first the picture books and then graduating to her novels. I savored stories of her pioneer family trekking across the vast country, through the dry heat of summer and into heaps of winter snow. I daydreamed of packing my most prized possessions (which would have included a handmade calico dress, no doubt) into a covered wagon and sleeping under the stars.
A few years later, when I was 14, my family road-tripped to the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in Mansfield, Missouri. Instead of having a shrieking fangirl moment when touring the house, I remember being coolly unimpressed. “So, this is it?” I thought, disenchanted by the small build and modest decor of the house where she wrote her stories. Perhaps the simple life lost its appeal in my preteen years, as I dreamed less of log cabins and covered wagons and more of shopping sprees and shiny, minted things. Resourcefulness no longer seemed romantic.
The Ingalls family possessed few things but had remarkable freedom. As the adage goes, “The less you own, the less that owns you.” With little to cling to, the Ingalls family moved from place to place freely—albeit out of necessity. At the same time, the Ingalls family obviously valued things. Consider their first Christmas on the prairie, which Ingalls Wilder chronicled in one of her books. Mary and Laura are overjoyed by the gift of a penny. “Think of having a whole penny for your very own!” Laura exclaimed.
A penny! Ingalls Wilder waxed poetic about a penny; I, by contrast, wanted many things but value them very little. I might wear a shirt just once or twice before pushing it to the back of the closet and forgetting about it.
This suggests an important difference in the way we value material things. I don’t want possessions for their value. I want them for the value I believe they give me. This isn’t surprising. Our materialistic culture tells us that we are what we have. For years, I let my self-worth be linked to things—buying clothes, shoes, whatever made me feel validated. But reflecting on my shopping habits, I’ve realized that it was mostly to impress or be like my peers. Going to a party? I stop by the mall. Admire another woman’s character or career? I shop her look. If the thoughts that run through my head during a shopping spree reveal anything, it’s that style is linked to identity. Would this make me look artsy? Cool, at least a little? Classic?
Clothing can be empowering, helping us rediscover our inner beauty or express our unique personality. Fashion is an art, and clothing really can be beautiful. Belongings, especially our wardrobes, do express our identities. But possessions cannot create our identities. Although our possessions can hint at who we are, things do not give us inherent dignity. Our identity and value lie within us.
Each of us is the product of our particular history. We’re shaped by our friends, family, and experiences. And each of us is unrepeatable and irreducible to a particular category, whether it’s boho-chic or J.Crew prep.
Of course, wanting to feel admired or appreciated from time to time is normal. But I’m realizing that using new things to feel valued is simply a quick fix. Buying my way out of a melancholic mood may boost my confidence temporarily, but it doesn’t address the underlying need. The problem here lies in confusing my belongings for my being. It’s thinking, “If I buy this one thing, then I’ll be satisfied and admired”—only to find one more thing that I have to have.
What if instead of gaining belongings, I cultivated a sense of belonging?
I’ve found that there’s no better way to prove this point to myself than giving things away. Going to extremes to declutter your life from frivolous stuff may not always be prudent. But now when my closet collects more and more pieces that I rarely wear, I take the cue to declutter, whether that means tossing something that’s in tatters, giving away gently worn pieces, or reselling. When books sit on my shelf never to be read again, they end up at the library donation center. When my stack of magazines stands too tall, some go in the recycling bin. Sometimes I agonize over letting a piece go. But once it’s gone . . . I’m still here. Freely letting go of belongings (even onetime favorites) reminds me that what I own does not own me or constitute my identity.
Detaching myself (at least a little) from material things—or detaching material things from me—has helped me to prize people and experiences, from which real joy springs, over things. I’m more intentional now about treasuring simple joys that don’t cost a dime, such as reading with a cup of coffee in hand, unwinding in my hammock, going for a walk with a friend to make the most of a mild day, or stopping to enjoy the sunset.
One of the most powerful predictors of happiness, some research suggests, is being present in the given moment rather than allowing our minds to wander. When I think about that, I think back to the Ingalls girls and their penny. It wasn’t the penny itself that brought them so much joy; it was that, together, they were experiencing something new, something meaningful in receiving the gift. It is experiences like these that forge my identity. By filling my time and feeding my thoughts with positive experiences, I'm learning to fulfill myself without the need for excess. Now, it's moments with friends and family that give me my strongest sense of belonging.
I’m still learning these lessons. But, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet simple things in life which are the real ones after all.”
Photo Credit: Tina Sosna