Recently, I spent a lovely weekend with my best girlfriends at Lake Keowee in South Carolina. It’s an annual tradition for us to enjoy a weekend away being pampered by my friend’s parents. Their large custom-built lakeside home is perfect for entertaining. We all love to share meals around their big dining room table and they’ve got plenty of bedrooms and bathrooms for the bunch of us. These lake weekends consist of a lot of relaxing, good food, and plenty of swimming in Keowee’s cool, green waters.
Something happened, though, during this most recent trip that caught my attention. There’s a room in this gorgeous lake house called “The Treehouse.” It’s on the third floor and is separated from the other upstairs room by a catwalk that overlooks the kitchen and living room. The bedroom’s view out the huge set of windows is literally like being up in the tree branches. You can see beyond to the lake and it’s simply a magically beautiful place to sleep – quiet, secluded, and oh-so-comfortable.
On this trip, I was excited to get to sleep in The Treehouse for the first time. Somehow, it just never happened on other trips for me to sleep up there. I specifically requested the room this time. When I arrived, I carried my small overnight bag and pillow up to the room, but headed right back down to the kitchen to chat while we waited for the rest of the girls to show up. Later that night, after a great dinner, a bit of wine, and some games, I climbed the stairs back up to The Treehouse.
As soon as I shut the door, I was overcome with feelings of loneliness. This surprised me so much because I was so looking forward to being in this room. The loneliness hit me right in the middle of my chest. I felt isolated up there in The Treehouse – vulnerable – and more than a little confused.
When I got home Sunday night, I talked to my husband about it. Nodding, he said, “You and I practically live on top of each other in our 280 sq. ft. 5th wheel camper. You being up in that third floor room with no one around was probably a very weird, disorienting experience for you.”
He was right! Of course, I went and did a bit of research on this. Study after study shows the amount of floor space in homes per individual has been steadily increasing since the 60s. It made me think about how we used to live: in small houses filled with big families, all in each other’s business. Kids shared rooms and often shared beds. Generations of families lived on the same land, if not in the same house.
In our modern world, it seems, according to author and researcher Bill McKibben, we are inadvertently choosing floor space over connection. And now, as Americans, we’re choosing stuff over connection, too. The Treehouse room felt like an isolation chamber to me. I’d gone from feeling connected, laughing, and sharing a meal with eight other people to being alone, alone, alone.
It brought a few things into clear focus for me, too. We live in a consumer society, able to buy nearly whatever we want anytime we want. And yet, other studies show we are the loneliest society in the world right now. While we seem to be uber-connected (especially through the internet and social media), in reality it’s a false kind of connection. It’s very different than the hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart, eyeball-to-eyeball connection that feeds us internally.
It seems that in our quest for bigger homes and more stuff, we’ve made an uneven trade. Our huge homes, with lots of bedrooms, multi bathrooms, and individual electronics (TV, computers, tablets, smartphones) have made it more difficult to be in close relationship with other people. I see Black Friday and the shopping crazes (rages?) putting the importance of stuff before the importance of people. As a society, it looks like we’d rather knock someone over to get to things. Rather than impressing people with who we are, we try to impress them with what we have.
With my experience in the Treehouse room, I’m not in any way trying to say my friend’s parents shouldn’t have their big house. What I am saying is the isolation really got to me. And the vulnerable conversation I had with my husband really gave me a feeling of comfort and clarity about my reaction.
In my world, I’ve deliberately chosen to have less stuff in order to live more fully in the present. To be less tied down to things that cost money to maintain in order to be free to entertain friends, travel, and even to simply relax in the evenings with my husband and our pets.
I can’t say what might be right for you and your family. What I can ask is that you consider whether your emphasis in life is on things or on people… and to ask you if that makes you feel connected, happy, and loved.
For the next couple of weeks, try noticing when you get into your heart-space. Are you surrounded by things you love, or by people you love? If your stuff has you feeling overwhelmed or your big house actually makes you feel isolated, maybe it’s time to consider making some changes. A big purge or a big move could radically change how often you actually get to make yourself at home in your heart.
This piece was originally published by Angie Mattson Stegall in the October 2015 edition of WNC Woman Magazine.