Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The tyranny of things

I have a friend who still has the golf clubs and several pairs of golf shoes that he cleaned out of his late father's country club locker over ten years ago. He holds onto them, despite the fact that the shoes don't fit and my friend doesn't golf. He is not exactly a hoarder, but he has attached feelings to objects and the events they represent in his life to the point that there are definite paths to walk in his apartment. When we were discussing it one time he referred to it as the "tyranny of things."

The Wife and I bought our current home from the three sons of the late owners, who built the house and lived in it for over thirty years. The first time we looked through the house, the daughters-in-law were going through the treasures and trash left behind from full, rich lives lived well, and we heard continual exclamations of amusement and surprise from the attic and bedrooms.

"Wow! There are flashcubes up here! Some of them only have one or two flashes left!" (At no time did anyone discover a camera that could use them.) "How many brooches can one woman wear?" ... "I can't believe they kept all of this."

I have been somewhat fortunate in this regard. I moved a lot when I was younger, and tried to limit my possessions to a volume that would fit in my car. A divorce taught me that we don't miss most of the crap we lose, and five years in a graduate student apartment trained me not to bring anything into the house without looking for something to send out. I adopted a policy of maintaining a fixed space for sentimental objects, and when that space gets too crowded something has to go. On the other hand, I have a lot of hobbies, and I love books, and it turns out that furniture and artwork and clothes and coats and shoes have a tendency to accumulate.

My geographic location and position in the family shield me from a good deal of the "tyranny of heirlooms," though I have received a few of my father's possessions that are really of no use to anyone, but I know meant a lot to him. What am I supposed to do with an architect's seal, or World War II era Army discharge papers? Two separate friends have recently had the experience of going through deceased relatives' houses, and both lamented the things they had to leave behind, knowing that many of their loved one's most treasured possessions would end up with strangers, or in a dumpster somewhere. I don't know if you've ever been to a professionally executed estate sale, but it's not something you want to experience if the estate belonged to someone close.

In my own experience, the times when I had the fewest possessions have been in many ways the happiest. I'm not saying that being poor is better than having money, but that people are better company than things, and that there are many activities more fun and satisfying than shopping and organizing our stuff.

I'm afraid that, in the end, we become the possessions of our stuff. It holds us in one place, both physically and emotionally. A thousand tiny threads bind us to all that we gather around us, and we become like the hermit crab, carrying our lives on our backs. Emotionally, the tyranny of things is associated with everything from severe anxiety to weight gain.

So can someone tell me why we feel the need to glorify materialistic behavior in everything from what we teach our kids to the way we run our society? We judge ourselves and those around us by our possessions, and there is nothing our children desire that they should not have. Consumption-driven economic growth is king, and if you're not buying then you're not doing your part as a citizen. We are supposed to desire and then acquire. Maybe it's good that products are becoming more disposable. I guess if we get used to throwing things away we can work on the front end later.

Image from here

Tibetan monks create complex mandalas from colored sand, often spending days or weeks creating intricate patterns with colored powder to heal and purify the world. The paintings are typically destroyed soon after they are completed, symbolic of the transience of life, and the empty nature of all phenomena. I try to remember this whenever I find myself thinking that I can't get rid of something, or when I set out to clean a closet.

So that's it. I think I'm through with stuff, and I don't need anything. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need...

Image from here


  1. no different than the packrats, putting shiny things in our nests, aren't we? i'm getting better - moving house after 20 years helped. and i like your 'set the square footage for the sentimental items' approach. may try that as i continue to downsize... much of my stuff - and things that my mother will release from her nest - end up repurposed at thrift stores. just feels less wasteful that way...

  2. I am getting better at purging. Anything new coming in means something going out. I remember feeling lighter when I could fit everything I owned into my car, but maybe it was the time of my life that was making it seem so wonderfully rich....