Mind Over Matter - The Freeing Nature of Thinking About "Losing Everything"

Dear reader, I found this unpublished post recently (one of many, as I've mentioned before). I wrote it about two years ago, but its contents are still relevant to me, especially as it offers perspective at a time when so many people in Fort McMurray are dealing with being displaced, many having lost their homes. That said, I cannot begin to understand what they are going through and my heart goes out to them). I appreciated the reminder of the many benefits of being less attached to "stuff" than ever before and hope that many more of us will benefit from adopting a similar view. After all, we are much more than our material possessions. 

Since my early childhood, the most important possession was having a house I could call home for a long time. Having moved 8 times by the time I was 14 years old, having a living space that I could call my own over the long term was important to me. I wanted a place that we could afford, in an area we would find comfortable indefinitely. And we found that place.


I LOVE our home. I really do. We designed it in 2001 and built much of it ourselves. It's not huge, about 1,500 square feet on two levels plus a basement, and we have a lovely backyard on the river, a wood-burning stove, a simple and well-appointed kitchen and an "attic-style" bedroom—the kind I always dreamed of having as a kid. It also offers the office and work space we need to do the work and projects we most enjoy...and it would be VERY hard to leave it behind. Or so I thought. 

Enter A Potential Venture

In 2014, my husband and I were investigating a business venture in the health and fitness space that would require about $600K in funding to acquire 9K square feet of space and the associated leasehold improvements required to become operational. It was bigger than most other entrepreneurial ventures we'd ever considered. And, being rather financially risk averse, the idea of taking on significant debt and paying, as opposed to earning, interest was just not acceptable to us.

We worked the numbers many different ways, relying on an update of a then 2-year-old business plan, and found that we could downsize our current lifestyle and be able to afford the investment while taking on a manageable amount of risk (quite manageable according to the bank, scary as hell for us). Our overall exposure was about $100K, assuming we ran the business straight into the ground, an outcome we both considered unlikely.

Freeing up the required resources for this investment would involve selling our home (or at the very least renting it out for a minimum of 2 years, depending how the business was doing), dipping significantly into our savings and getting rid of a lot of our stuff in order to fit our life in a much smaller space.

Hedonic adaptation can be the simple ‘getting used to’ [concept], or it can be the result of a change in reference point, owing to a new experience [a new frame of reference, a new anchor].
— Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice (2004), p. 169.

I've always known that we'd sell this home at some point in the future, but I really thought it would be much, much later than what we were considering at that time. It felt like a shocking thing to even consider, let alone act upon. I immediately started grieving the potential loss.

It took about two months for us to mull over before we decided to take the necessary steps to move on the deal. Taking this time to think turned out to be a critical step. During this time, we started imagining what life would look like in our new reality. We started focusing on what we'd be gaining as well as losing and it made the idea of leaving this home easier every time we visualized this alternate future. Once we became more comfortable with the potential upside of the change, we went for it. We delivered a proposal, comfortable that what we were doing, as scary as it was, would turn out OK. 

Unfortunately, the deal died about one month later when we couldn't close the gap between buyer and seller—that's a story for another day.

An Unintended Consequence of the Deal

If you live in a past dream, you don’t enjoy what is happening right now because you will always wish it to be different than it is. There is no time to miss anyone or anything because you are alive. Not enjoying what is happening right now is living in the past and being only half alive. This leads to self-pity, suffering and tears.
— Don Miguel Ruiz with Janet Mills, The Four Agreements (1997), p. 71.

We're still living in our home, so what changed? A few things and I'm relieved they have, even though they're only changes in perception:

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.
— George Carlin
  • My fear of what I will "lose" when we leave this home has now been greatly reduced. The glass can be half full, no matter what you need to or decide to leave behind.
  • I feel I can dream up whatever I want for myself without feeling shackled by my current day's possessions.
  • I don't take for granted that I'll have this home "forever" anymore and I find I'm grateful on a daily basis for what it affords me in quality of life, both in practical and experiential terms. 

The above points, on their own are important but better still, the mental process of working through what it would be like to lose something dear to me now applies to how I view other possessions. I often ask myself what it would be like not to have certain things or what possibilities might open up for us if our physical environment changed.

What do I mean? Let me offer a short list of what's crossed my mind.

What if we:

If people are reluctant to answer ‘Why?’ questions in their lives, they also tend to have trouble with ‘Why not?’ The latter implies risk. Steeped in habit and fearful of change, most of us are to some degree risk averse...One would think that these fears would improve with age and experience; the opposite is usually the case.
— Gordon Livingston, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart (2004), p. 47.
  • Traded in the assets we use in our current businesses/professions for investment in different professional activities? What new skills and experiences would this change offer? Could we work on something that we'd find even more rewarding?
  • Sold our home, downsized into a 1-bedroom condo or apartment and invested the difference to help grow our retirement savings by leaps and bounds?
  • Gave away or sold nearly everything we own and lived half the year in other countries, traveling the world and experiencing a very different life?
After love, the most potent human emotion is regret. It might be even more potent, because unlike love, you never get past it.
— David R. Dow, Things I’ve Learned From Dying (2014), p. 222.

By repeatedly picturing what I felt was a monumental change and taking steps to make it a reality, I reignited my imagination, allowing myself to picture many alternate realities where I would be just fine, regardless of what and how much familiar "stuff" would still be around. It's lessened the almighty aversion to losing something, the powerful force that all too often keeps us anchored to the status quo. It also made me realize what I so appreciate about our current view: an ability to fully appreciate each opportunity without being overwhelmed by its drawbacks.

Image credits/copyright: maya picture /freedigitalphotos.net

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