scorecardI lost everything I owned in a fire. This is how it reframed my thinking about owning material things.
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I lost everything I owned in a fire. This is how it reframed my thinking about owning material things.

Polly Thompson   

I lost everything I owned in a fire. This is how it reframed my thinking about owning material things.
Retail4 min read
  • Helen Chandler-Wilde's belongings had been packed up into storage while she stayed with her parents after a break-up.
  • But then she got a call that a fire at the unit had destroyed everything she owned.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Helen Chandler-Wilde about what it was like to lose all of her possessions in a fire. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I only heard about the fire a few days after it happened.

I was 25 at the time and living with my parents for a few months following a breakup. All my belongings had been packed into storage while I looked for somewhere new to live.

I had thought that the worst-case scenario would be mice eating a couple of my books.

But on New Year's Eve, a fire started at the storage company. Everything burned down.

When my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and told me the news, I genuinely thought it was a joke.

I cried all night long, and then I just felt really, really angry that I had lost everything.

My birth certificate, all of my books, jewelry, my bed, my dining table, kitchenware, blankets, and curtains had all been in there. All I had left was a suitcase of clothes.

Those items had felt like a part of my identity —something I could rely on to show other people and myself who I was.

Losing them made me question, "Am I really this kind of person if I don't have all of that stuff to prove it? "

There was also this purple cardboard box filled with sentimental bits of paper: cards, letters, tickets from gigs, and photos of my university sports team. Those little things connected me to other people.

That's the one thing I wish I could have saved.

The first things I replaced

You don't realize how expensive everything you own is until something like this happens. I was completely overwhelmed by the financial cost of replacing my furniture.

I was earning peanuts at the time and only got £2,000 ($2,500) of insurance even though it was worth far more.

A friend of a friend gave me a bed, a mattress, and a sofa, which was invaluable. Then I just headed to the secondhand store across the road from my apartment and had to buy basically everything in there.

I bought a dining table, plates and crockery, some rickety chairs, and a mirror — turns out you really need one for getting dressed in the morning before work!

There was no time to browse; I just needed to have the bare necessities that I could afford.

Having stuff doesn't make you happier

The fire has reframed my way of thinking.

I definitely have less now than I did before. That's partly because I feel like my belongings could go at any point, so I don't trust owning stuff anymore.

But truthfully, I can't even remember some of the belongings that were in the storage unit, which shows how they didn't actually benefit me.

I have learned not to get attached to physical objects. Beyond the basics, the vast majority of stuff doesn't actually make you happier. Now I prefer spending money on going out for dinner with friends.

There are also advantages to not having so many things. It's easy to keep clean, and there's less stress associated with it.

A dangerous cycle of thinking

It's really tricky for me now to have conversations with friends about shopping because their ideas are so different. I find it challenging when people say, " Oh, I really need this."

I always say, "Okay, you might want it, but you definitely don't need it."

Our generation spends more time alone and looking at ads, and that has an impact on how we see the world. It's become a default state to look at what others have and want it yourself. People browse constantly on Instagram or social media and convince themselves that they won't be happy unless they buy certain things.

And that's not true at all. Your life will be perfectly fine.

It's a loop you can get stuck in, but as soon as you stop browsing, you stop wanting stuff.

Obviously, there are people who don't have everything they need, and that's completely different.

Work out what you need

I'm not judgmental at all about how much people own, and I'm not a minimalist myself.

But what I think is important is to work out what you need for yourself, not copy what everyone else has. Reconsider how much you buy and why you buy what you do.

It's about selecting the things that actually have value in your life and are worth the space in your home.

For me, memories make you who you are. So, I have lots of pictures on the walls of my house; it's cozy and creates a sense of space. And, though I definitely do still keep those sentimental things, I have tried to pare them back a bit because anything can become sentimental if you let it. Having one amazing picture of your best friend's wedding is enough.

If you focus on the good things, you understand that you most likely already have everything you already need.

Helen Chandler-Wilde's book "Lost & Found" was published in March.




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