Stuff: An American Phenomenon

Compassion International, Senior Vice President, USA, Mark Hanlon

Compassion International's Senior Vice President Mark Hanlon discusses the American phenomenon of storage units in relation to poverty.

Stuff: An American Phenomenon

How channel surfing brought home a lesson on what we own

By: Mark Hanlon, Senior Vice President, USA, Compassion International   |   Posted: October 12, 2012

Stuff: An American Phenomenon

I have my favorite TV programs just like everyone else. But every once in a while, I like to see what else is out there. So the other night, as I flipped through channels, I came across a program that I didn’t recognize. It showed an auctioneer rolling numbers off his quick tongue as a crowd gathered.

What are they bidding on? There was obvious tension between some of the bidders as they countered each other … $800 … $900 … $1,000 … By now I was hooked. I had to know what it was that they wanted so badly. Two rivals threw a little trash talk at each other as the numbers continued to increase. Finally, a winner emerged with the bid of $1,600. That’s when the camera pulled back to reveal the item he had won: a storage unit.

These bidders didn’t even know what was in the storage space. They were bidding on stacks of unmarked boxes, furniture pieces and miscellaneous junk in hopes of finding something valuable.

We love “stuff” in our country, don’t we?  Apparently, we love it so much that we’re willing to pay for someone else’s stuff too, just to add to our own. And, as I later found out, storing stuff we don’t have room for is largely an American phenomenon.

According to the Self-Storage Association’s website, there are more than 58,000 storage facilities around the world. And 80 percent of those are here in the United States. In fact, one in every 10 households in the U.S.  rents a storage unit. That’s pretty interesting, considering just how large our homes have become. The average size of a house in the U.S. is about 2,100 square feet. But apparently that’s not enough room for our stuff. Our stuff spills out of our homes, into our garages and, when that’s not enough, into a storage unit.

At Compassion we minister to more than 1.3 million children around the world, most of whom have no idea what a storage unit is. The concept of having more stuff than you have room for is foreign to those living in extreme poverty. And the truth is, most storage units are nicer than the homes our kids live in.

Here in the U.S., we even have climate-controlled storage units for our stuff, with cement floors, cinder-block walls and solid roofs. Our stuff has better living conditions than moms, dads and kids in other parts of the world have.

The more I dig into this reality, the more I have to put myself under the microscope. I admit I have more than I need in my life, too. There’s a closet in my house where I stashed things years ago. They haven’t been touched since. Shelves in my garage have items collecting dust. To be honest, I’ve been tempted to rent a space to store the overflow. But, for the reasons listed above, I have decided against it. Besides, maybe there’s someone else out there who could make better use of those things.

Donating to Goodwill or another charity that takes such items is a good start. Or perhaps you could have a yard sale and donate the income to those who don’t have enough. There are approximately 1.3 billion people on this planet who live on less than $1.25 a day. For them, some of our stuff — or the proceeds from it — could mean the difference between eating today or going hungry. While we have more than we need, they need more than they have.

Now, I understand that there are times when extra space is necessary. Our brave men and women fighting overseas often find themselves needing a place to keep their possessions during their deployment.

Families in transition sometimes need a space to store belongings until a new home is built or while waiting on a new stage in life. But many more of us use storage units simply because we don’t have room for all our stuff.

What about you? Is there stuff in your life that could go to better use? Are there items you’ve been holding on to, only to allow them to decay or rust away? And perhaps we need to ask ourselves these questions: How did we ever get here? What are we seeking from material things that drives us to accumulate more than we have room for?

Maybe a lifestyle change is in order. Maybe it’s time to clean out the clutter. I heard this profound quote recently. I’m not sure where it originated, but it’s powerful: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Let’s all take a personal inventory of our stuff and see if, somewhere on a forgotten shelf, is an opportunity to help someone in need.