When my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I moved abroad 12 years ago, we had some decisions to make.
We owned a large house and garage full of the usual collection of furniture, cookware, tools, books, rugs, electronics, knickknacks…all the flotsam and jetsam of American middle-class life.
We sold the house and had to decide what to do with all that stuff. So we took inventory—stuff we wanted to keep on one side of the ledger, stuff for the garage sale on the other. The idea was to get rid of all the things we didn’t need and keep all the things that we thought gave our life meaning and stability…the stuff we absolutely couldn’t live without.
So went our first experience with “downsizing.”
Over the following six or seven years, we’d check on all those precious, indispensable items every time we went back to the States for a visit. And without fail, each time we’d stand in the doorway of the storage unit and say, “What were we thinking?” And the contents of the unit would shrink by half.
During our time abroad, we were unconsciously learning a lot about ourselves. Over the course of our travels and moves from one country to the next, from one living situation to the next, a critical difference became clear…the difference between the material things we really and truly needed to be happy and the things we simply desired.
Right now we live in a 1,100-square-foot condo in Ecuador, and the only things in it of all those precious, can’t live-without-it items from our old life are a set of silverware and two coffee mugs. Everything else has been gathered along the way, and if we had to sell tomorrow, almost all of it would stay with the condo.
Not that we didn’t ship a whole bunch of that precious stuff down to ourselves at first. We unloaded an entire shipping container of it into our first house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico…much of which stayed with that house when we sold it and moved on to Panama.
And with each move, we get a bit more condensed.
And meanwhile, back in the States, what “treasures” we still haven’t given to family or friends or simply tossed now barely cover the floor of a six-by-six-foot storage locker.
All this traveling and relocating has made us good at traveling light, and even more importantly, taught us what we really need to be happy.
And a lot of baggage isn’t it.
Make no mistake, we love some of our possessions. My guitar makes me happier than almost anything other than Suzan. Suzan has some art pieces that have been with us so long they just about have their own frequent flyer miles.
But the things that now provide the most comfort, meaning, and sanity in our lives are not the material things we once thought we needed to be happy. They are the people we meet, the things we do, the places we go, and the never-ending parade of challenges and adventures we encounter each day.
That’s the true lesson of downsizing for us…the less stuff we have, the more room there is for all those people, things, places, and adventures.
That’s why Suzan and I give the same advice to almost anyone considering a move abroad. No matter if you plan to move with a container full of your most prized possessions or just what you can fit in a carry-on bag, the advice is the same.
Before you start sorting things and filling up that shipping container, sit down and analyze yourself…and we mean honestly and ruthlessly. Ask yourself this question…if you had to move to a foreign country tomorrow morning and could only take one thing with you, and if you left that thing behind you’d be miserable no matter where on earth you were…what would it be?
Put that on your packing list. Repeat until you know just how much stuff you really and truly need to be happy. Then start your own adventure.
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