Glenn Beck recently did a show in which he talked about how he and his wife had decided to downsize their lives. As a result, he said they literally cut their possessions in half, and he urged his audience to do the same. He believes it’s an important step in preparing for the bad times ahead. As has been the case with Beck so often in the past, his little talk about the efficacy of downsizing inspired me.
That there are bad times on the horizon is a given. I was writing about the probability of a runaway inflation and subsequent collapse of the foundations of American society as early as the late seventies. I was far from alone in my thinking … Harry Browne, Gary North, Jim Blanchard and a number of other “hard-money” newsletter writers come to mind.
At the time, of course, establishment political types and the mainstream media dismissed all of us as doomsayers. When I did television shows, I think the producers and hosts saw me as a kind of novelty – sort of like a Richard Simmons in a suit and tie. They must have been thinking, “Isn’t he hysterical? The collapse of Western civilization? The next thing you know, he’ll be telling us there’s a Marxist conspiracy afoot to fundamentally transform the United States of America.”
But I digress … back to Glenn Beck and downsizing. Like most entrepreneurs, small businesspeople, writers and other independent professionals, I’ve thrown out hundreds of thousands of letters and documents over the years. And in my personal life, I’ve gotten rid of countless possessions, including, all too often, items I never even got around to using.
But the way Beck talked about downsizing and simplifying your life hit me at a time in my own life, coupled with a time in world history, that motivated me to get really serious about downsizing. So, on Sunday, my wife and I went on the attack.
This time it wasn’t just the obvious stuff. It was the untouchables – the yearbook from my senior year in high school … hundreds of videotapes of programs I had taped 10 to 20 years ago … suits I hadn’t worn in 15 years, but always assumed I would again someday … scores of hardcover copies of books I had written … and on and on it went. But after several hours of hard labor, it became clear that this would be but the first installment in a countless number of downsizing sessions to come.
It reminded me of a line from my favorite movie (actually, a miniseries), “The Thorn Birds.” The movie centers around Drogheda, a large sheep station in the Australian outback, beginning in the 1920s. Drogheda is owned by an elderly and very wealthy widow named Mary Carson (played by Barbara Stanwyck).
In one of an endless number of dramatic scenes, Mary is standing on the front porch of the main house at Drogheda with Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain). She is hopelessly in love with the much younger priest, and, at one point, philosophically says to him something to the effect of, “You know, a hundred years from now, no one will even remember that any of us even lived here at Drogheda.”
The reason hers was such a poignant statement is because the Clearys (Cleary being Mary’s maiden name) were such an important family, and the soap-opera-like, incestuous entanglements of the various family members at Drogheda were so real that it was hard to imagine all of them not only being gone, but forgotten. It was a somber reminder to me of just how ephemeral life really is.
I thought about Mary Carson’s comment again as I went through hundreds of souvenirs last weekend, many from as far back as when I was in elementary school. One example that really struck me was a large spike I had shown to my children many times over the years. At the age of 10, while playing football with the neighborhood kids, I was on the receiving end of a vicious tackle that totally severed my right femur.
As part of the ensuing surgical procedure, the doctor drilled a hole through my ankle and inserted that large spike – in one side and out the other. I was laid up in the hospital for five weeks, with weighted pulleys, attached to both sides of the pin, holding my leg up in the air. For a young kid like me, it was a very big deal.
Along with tons of other junk souvenirs, I kept that pin in one of my souvenir containers for decades, because I still thought of it as a very big deal. But between Barbara Stanwyck’s remark in “The Thorn Birds” and Glenn Beck’s downsizing speech, for the first time I realized that, in the overall scheme of things, it was not such a big deal after all. I thought to myself, “Do you really believe that someday your children or grandchildren will look at that pin and say, ‘Wow! Just think, dad (or my grandfather) once had that pin sticking out of both sides of his ankle?’”
Honesty compelled me to admit that I didn’t believe they would ever say or think such a thing, because it wasn’t a part of their lives. Call it the Drogheda reality: Life is ephemeral, and most of what you experience is not that important to anyone else. Even the most famous among us end up having much of their “stuff” auctioned off after they die.
Bad times are coming, to be sure. Runaway inflation? Maybe. A deflationary collapse? Maybe. Both? Maybe. The truth is, no one knows. The only thing all honest, rational people (which eliminates most politicians and pundits) can agree on is that $100-200 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities must end badly. And when it does, you don’t want to be weighted down by yearbooks and surgical mementos.
Having said all this, I second Beck’s motion: Downsize!