My Grandpa Colby was a young teen when he was summoned to a neighbor’s farm to help milk a less-than-cooperative cow. Apparently the farmer was off on a drinking binge and had abandoned the cow for days. She was miserably full of milk and unwilling to let anyone touch her.
As Colby arrived at the barn and moved toward the unhappy cow, he must have sensed her tension. He talked to her as he approached and grabbed the milking stool. But when he knelt down to milk the cow, she lurched forward and kicked him in the leg, opening a deep gash. His torn flesh bled severely.
There were no modern ambulances or helicopters to come to his rescue, so getting him to medical attention took precious time—lost time that allowed his young muscles to die from lack of blood. In the end, in order to save his life, his leg had to be amputated.
Colby had ventured down the road toward a neighbor’s farm to perform an act of kindness, not realizing his life would change forever. As I grew up and more fully understood my Grandpa Colby, what struck me was that he wasn’t in the least consumed by his past. I never heard him tell his story firsthand; I had to piece it together from family recollections. He never thought it necessary to tell me how he felt about losing his leg. The grandpa I grew to know could have been bitter about the drunken farmer or the call to take responsibility for someone else’s animal. Yet he never complained about his bad fortune or the fact that the situation left him without a leg. Instead he stayed focused on the future and the abundance of good things he could do—like catch fish with his grandkids and beat me at checkers!
Having the use of two healthy legs is surely a “possession” many of us believe is necessary to enjoy a full, happy, and large life. This was especially true in the community where Grandpa Colby lived, where being able bodied was essential to earning a livelihood. But Grandpa Colby simply found a way, as many people do, of living well without the benefit of the full body he was given at birth. He finished school and became a successful banker and family man. He was at peace. He was content, regardless of circumstance.
Most of us have a vision of what we think is absolutely necessary for us to be happy. As we have noted, there is a measure of truth in those beliefs. But the greater truth is that we can learn to live happily even if we are denied things we consider essential.
Just as our homes have expanded over time, the list of material things we deem important continues to grow longer and longer. British author and trend forecaster James Wallman tells about a formal study by UCLA anthropologists to dig into the stuff that fills American homes. The smallest home in the study measured just under a thousand square feet, yet in the home’s two bedrooms and the living room alone, researchers found 2,260 items. They counted only items out in the open, nothing hidden in drawers or cupboards. Among all the homes in their study they found on average:
- 39 pairs of shoes
- 90 DVDS or videos
- 139 toys
- 212 CDS
- 438 books and magazines
Wallman says of the homes studied, “Nine out of ten had so many things that they kept household stuff in the garage. Three quarters of them had so much stuff in there, there was no room left for cars.” The UCLA anthropologists call this a “clutter crisis.” Wallman calls it “stuffocation,” which he defines as “suffocating under too much stuff.” He adds that the overgrowth of clutter is not solely an American phenomenon: the average British woman “buys 59 items of clothing each year, she has twice as many things in her wardrobe today as she did in 1980, and she has 22 things in there she has never worn.”