Friday, January 31, 2014

Truer Than Fiction: The Stuff That Minimizes

Why is it that some fiction works are truer than nonfiction? I have read plenty of nonfiction that has little to no bearing on my life. But here I am two chapters into rereading The Fellowship of the Ring--very definitely fiction--and I can't help but be struck with how true some of it feels: specifically the power of the One Ring.

The One Ring, apart from the invisibility and dark magic, has a power over the mind of its owner. As Gandalf says, it owns you, not the other way around. And yet, it cannot be taken away from the owner by force; that would break the person's mind, as it did to Gollum, driving him mad when the Ring deserted him and found its way into Bilbo's hands during the events of The Hobbit. So a person must give it up freely, as Bilbo did, in order to become whole again.

As a writer and reader of much fiction, I am tempted to think, "Well, that's convenient." How perfect for Tolkien to have made it this way: that the members of the Fellowship can't just pass the Ring among themselves, taking it from one another when its power over one of them starts growing too strong,* until they reach Mount Doom and can at last unmake it. It must be freely given and freely destroyed; and so begins Frodo's lonely journey as The Ring-bearer.

And yet, this isn't just convenience on Tolkien's part. This isn't just the magic of a ring that does not exist and could never exist in our world. The concepts draw on reality.

Things own people in our world, too. You can have so much that you are ruled by its sheer quantity. I love this quote from The Hobbit:

"His [Smaug's] rage passes description--the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but never before used or wanted."

When you have lots of stuff, you get to a point where you no longer have the time to notice or use each item. The purpose becomes not to use or enjoy the stuff you have, but simply to have it. It isn't you who owns the stuff any more. Your sole purpose is to be the owner and protector, while things that used to exist for your purposes now exist for no purposes but their own.

It's not just rich folk who have this problem. How many spatulas and wooden spoons are in your kitchen? Do you use them all? Have you ever had a time where you said, "Oh dear, I am all out of wooden spoons"? Probably not. How many picture frames? How many rugs? How many books that you have never read, but always meant to? (And how long would it take to read all of them if you sat down now and didn't stop until you were done?) How many winter coats do you have, and how many do you actually wear? How many clothes are in your closet waiting for when you finally start Cross Fit and lose that weight that no one else can see--and has it been 8 years or 9 that those clothes have been waiting?

Everyone answers yes to one of these questions or to one like them. Here in the West, we have stuff. And we don't know how to get rid of it any more, partly because no one taught us and partly because that stuff now owns us.

There's more truth to the magic of the Ring than just its ownership of a person. The magic can only be broken by free will. You have to choose to let go. If someone comes and gets rid of it for you, you will still forever want it, hunger after it, wish you still had it, wonder what would have happened if you still owned it... It will take up valuable brain-space, even though it no longer takes up house-space. It will use up some of your desiring-energy which could be used to desire healthier things--all because that bond of ownership wasn't properly broken.

You may not own it anymore, but it can still own you from afar, like the Ring that drew Gollum over 1000 miles in pursuit of Bilbo on his journey back and forth across Middle Earth.

This is why wives who have started to go minimalist sometimes come up against very belligerent husbands when hubby comes home and finds half his stuff gone. It's not that he doesn't agree with her about having less stuff. Maybe he's completely on board. But he's got to be the one to get rid of it. Otherwise he'll always wonder and complain.

When you realize that all objects have a little bit of the One Ring's power, it is both freeing and weighty. It lifts some of the burden of the idea that having lots of stuff and being unable to get rid of it is your fault alone. Yes, you still are mostly to blame. But once that stuff got into your house, it helped persuade you to keep it. There's a power there beyond your own that's keeping that stuff in your house.

But now only you can choose to get rid of some of the extra stuff that is clogging your house unnecessarily. You're the only person who can overcome the temptation of keeping-for-the-sake-of-having. That stuff is affecting your decisions, and you're the one who must exert the willpower to end it. No one can do it for you.

Luckily, your stuff isn't the One Ring and it's not quite so powerful, though it may feel like it at times. You are stronger than your stuff. You can choose to get rid of that which you don't need--even some of that which you kind of need but can still do without.***

It's up to you. You can let your stuff minimize you, or you can minimize your stuff. When I've sorted through all our stuff and dropped all the "unnecessaries" off at the thrift store, I feel a little bit of that relief Frodo must have felt when the Ring was finally gone: because nobody owns me.

Word count: 1,048.

* This is precisely what Harry, Ron, and Hermione do with the Horcrux made from Slytherin's locket in the seventh book Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. It affects all of them that way, and they all suffer, but no one of them is affected too strongly.** You might think the Fellowship could have done the same thing with the One Ring--if it weren't for that whole breaking-someone's-psyche thing.

** You could argue that Ron was affected by the locket and that that's why he left them for a time. But I think that it's part of his character that he doesn't fully know himself and that he would inevitably have deserted them at some point, if only to discover for himself that that was the wrong choice. Ron himself says that he thinks Dumbledore left him the "Put-Outer" because Dumbledore knew that he would desert them but then want to find his way back.

*** Since people always seem at a loss for what kind of objects count under this heading, let me give you an example. I live in a place that gets snow; there are currently 8-9 inches gleaming at me through the window. I own snow boots. But I discovered quite by accident that when I'm wearing my usual 3 pairs of socks, it really doesn't matter whether I'm wearing my snow boots or my walking shoes. In fact, the walking shoes are easier to maneuver in. So I'm chucking the snow boots. Why have two pairs of shoes when one can do the job just fine?
Another example: we still don't own electric beaters. In fact, I don't even have mechanical beaters. The few--very few--times we need to beat/whip something finely, I just use a spoon and my big arm muscles. That's what people used to do, after all. Why have beaters when I could get a work-out AND cook at the same time? (This way it's a zero-calorie dessert!)