I look back at the last five years of my life and I realise I’ve come a long way. I was once a hoarder, I used to feel guilty about getting rid of things but it used to paralyse me. I would spend endless hours managing these possessions, either trying to find them in useless junk drawers or making decisions about where to put them. It was exhausting.
My habits suddenly changed when I moved to a smaller place and needed to downsize my items; I felt overwhelmed at the task and I vowed to never keep as many useless things again. Since then, I transformed into a quasi-minimalist, I became the junk-police of all the stuff that entered my home and I organised like crazy. It gave me a sense of peace and calm about giving everything I owned a purpose, a home and a label.
I lived in this blissful peace (on my own) until I left for Lebanon last summer and moved back into my childhood home with my mum. And I was suddenly reminded of my old ways, the ones I’d inherited from my family.
Learning hoarding during the war
I grew up towards the end of the Lebanese civil war, late enough to have escaped much of the atrocities, but early enough to have lived through the repercussions well after it ended. I learnt hoarding as a survival mechanism. The reason people hoarded during the war was purely instinctive. Resources were scarce and we didn’t know when food and essentials would be available again in the market. City blockades, continuous curfews and perpetual danger meant that people needed to stock up on their necessities to make sure there’s enough to keep the family going during tough times.
This habit persisted with us long after the war ended. My mother became accustomed to buying multiples of everything, “just in case” we can’t find it again. We have 3 industrial scale freezers at home; you’d be amazed at the kinds of fossilised items you’d discover in there. For the longest time, I would keep every little thing you can imagine. I kept cinema tickets, boarding passes, shoes that were too small and clothing that I hadn’t touched in years. This was our normal in the family. It took many years later for me to realise that my learned ways were no longer serving me.
The thing about hoarding is that it gives you a sense of control. The stacking of possessions used to give me a sort of comfort, that you have enough to keep going, just in case. It tames your anxiety for a while. It’s soothing to know that for now, you don’t need to venture out into the cruel world and hustle to find what you need. It gives you a break from being reminded of the absurdity of life in Lebanon. But it’s also overwhelming, you’re surrounded by stuff; some you’re using and consuming, others you keep just because there may come a time in the future you’d need them.
So my return back home was not only a shock to my newly-minimalist existence, it was compounded with the financial crisis and the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese currency shortly after my arrival.
The daily struggle
This turmoil meant that the daily essentials that you’re used to buying at the supermarket have suddenly skyrocketed in price. Things you wouldn’t think twice about buying force you to do a double-take at the aisle. Take deodorant for example, it’s now at least 5 times the price it was 6 months ago; in the heat of the summer, you’re faced with one of the most existential questions in social etiquette.
Week after week, prices are increasing before our eyes, so I had no choice but to start buying the things I consume, in bulk, out of fear that they would go even more expensive. I never thought I’d regress back to this state of hoarding, I don’t want to own this many things, but when things are so uncertain, you’re forced to buy in multiples! I confess that I now have 4 bottles of my favourite shampoo sitting in my cabinet; I bought these back when it only cost me double the original price. I don’t know if I feel ridiculous or proud of my attempts at outsmarting the system. I secretly wish I did the same thing for my toothpaste.
As a recent minimalist, this is a daily internal battle. It is challenging the very notions of owning less, only buying what you need and trusting in the abundance that the world has to offer. In a reality of so much scarcity, it’s hard to regulate your feelings of fear and anxiety without resorting to buying more of what you consume.
But above all, this experience has awakened me to the reasons why we do what we do. I have empathy for those of us who have developed these habits so they can cope with their anxieties and the realities of life. I can now absolutely relate to why my mom would buy her favourite things in multiples of 10, I understand the perpetual anxiety that Lebanese citizens live with. I understand the fear that people may never be able to afford Nutella anymore, they’d have to settle for its Turkish knockoff for now.
The privileged days of being able to find anything you wanted at affordable prices are gone, but I know that the principles I learned from minimalism will always remind me that the world is still abundant and life is still bountiful. Challenges come along to push our boundaries and help us explore the parts of ourselves that we have relinquished to our fears and anxieties. It’s not always easy to discern, but we have the comfort of warmth, joy and kinship all the same to reassure us that regardless of life’s hardships, the universe still has our back.
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