Recently I watched a TED talk by Graham Hill on down-sizing. He suggested that we in the developed world have too much stuff, and that the effort of collecting and managing all that stuff makes us unhappy. His view is that if we were to simplify our lives by getting rid of most of our material goods and keeping only a few really excellent items, this would free up time to engage in doing things we like to do. As well, we could move into much smaller living spaces, thus reducing our environmental footprint.
This is a seductive argument. How much time do you spend looking for some specific item out in the shed, or in the basement storage room, or maybe it's in the workshop? This happened to me last weekend. We were going to go for a mountain hike, and I was looking for my mid-weight hiking boots. I couldn't find them in any of the places that we keep footwear. Apparently, they were never unpacked after our last move. Rather than tackling the wall of boxes in the storage room, I just wore my old run down light-weight hikers. What good is it to have stuff that we can't find and therefore don't use? And then there is all the time we spend cleaning and looking after the great big houses we have in order to hold all of our stuff.
But, the fact is, we love our stuff. I am going to talk about three reasons that we love our stuff. We feel pleasure when we obtain new things. Second, our sense of identity is entangled in the way we represent ourselves to the world via our materiality. A third reason that we love our stuff is because of the memories signified by each object that we surround ourselves with. Each of these points demands a chapter rather than a mere paragraph or two, but I will try to keep my examples brief.
The Pleasure of Getting
It might be better to give than to receive, but in our materialistic culture, we do enjoy "getting" very much. For many people, shopping is a favourite pastime, and one of the ways that they spend much of their leisure time. There is an internal surge of pleasure upon purchasing a new item. Perhaps we picture ourselves using that brand new pair of powder skis on the ski hill and feel the anticipated pleasure of skiing. The object that we purchase is pregnant with possibility; we picture how it will enable us to engage in new activities, projects, or social interactions.
Or we imagine wearing the new maroon polka dot pajamas and curling up on the couch in front of the fire. The purchase of the pajamas stands for comfort and self care. When we purchase something, we are acting upon the internal message, I am worth it; I matter. In this, we might be pawns of the marketeers in our capitalistic culture, but the source of the belief does not make it any less potent. Receiving a gift conveys a similar message. You matter. I care about you. The object that one purchases or receives as a gift represents caring, and the notion that one is valued as a person.
Our stuff also comes to represent our identity. The kind of car that we drive, house that we live in, clothing that we wear, or coffee maker that we own tells the world who we are. If I drive a four wheel drive pickup truck, I am saying to the world that I am a certain kind of person, and that is a different kind of person than someone who would drive a BMW, let's say, or a Smart Car.
Clothing is a particularly important signifier of identity in our culture. Part of being culturally competent is to be able to read the nuances of dress and what it represents, and also to be able to select one's own style of dress to appropriately indicate role, class, gender, and personality. At one of the places I have worked, the men in leadership roles wear sports jackets, dress shirts, slacks, and ties, and in some cases suits. Except on Fridays. On Fridays, to a man, they appear at work in blue jeans and polo shirts. In order to participate in this particular work culture, these men have to purchase items of clothing that will give the message that: I am one of the guys. I fit into this team. At the same time, there has to be a small individual twist that says: I'm Fred, not Jack. They would not want to look like copy cats or clones. That would send the wrong message about competence and identity.
This matter of materiality as a representation of personal identity has come to pervade every aspect of mainstream North American life. We spend a great deal of time managing our representation of self to the world via the things we own and use. Moreover, we change our representations of self as our life circumstances change.
For example, when I think of the houses that I have lived in and owned throughout my life, each one has sent a different message about identity. I'll list them here, sequentially: 1. Renovated little brick heritage house in the shabby urban core (funky, young urban professional); 2. Three bedroom wooden split level in a suburb way on the outskirts of a large city (young family starting out, grad student); 3. Two story five bedroom home in a middle class suburb of a smallish northern city (growing family, middle class, northerner); 4. Log house with stained glass windows on half an acre with dog (artist, writer, intellectual, northerner); 5. Sprawling 60's split level in established middle class neighbourhood of a mid-sized city (late middle-aged, executive/professional). As my work role, family status, and geographical location have changed and along with them my preoccupations and activities, my type of home has changed as well for functional reasons. However, the type of house I live in also presents a message about who I am.
Things Hold Memories
A third reason why we care so much about our stuff is that the objects that we have become vehicles for our memories. When I look at the row of ornaments, vases, and pottery objects lined up on the mantelpiece in my living room, I can remember how each of those objects came to me. For example, from left to right: a vase handmade in my hometown that was a gift from my brothers when I was awarded tenure; a yellow and blue pottery container made by my daughter, the artist, when she was a teenager; a hand blown pink glass vase that was a gift from a brother and his ex when they lived in an artist's community; a robin's egg blue small pottery vase from the town where my former in-laws live, and so forth.
The objects that we surround ourselves with resonate with memories of the things that we have done in life and the people who have been important to us. Sometimes those objects represent significant accomplishments, turning points, or watershed moments in our lives, such as the births of our children, earning a degree, a divorce, or a new job. But even the most mundane objects may be saturated with memories.
I keep a small basket of rags in the laundry room. I have cut up old pieces of discarded clothing and towels to make the rags. When I pick up each scrap of fabric, I remember where it came from. This was that awful baggy old grey T-shirt of Rob's that I sneaked out of his drawer and made into rags so he wouldn't persist in wearing it. This rag came from my Monet T-shirt that I bought at an art gallery exhibition in Montreal in 1998. This next rag in the pile was cut from the worn-out sweat pants that I bought when I was pregnant with my second child. This scrap of towel was cut from a set of towels given to me by my beloved Aunt Mabel who died thirty years ago. Touching the fabric gives each memory an immediacy. The Monet T-shirt takes me back to memories of the conference I attended in Montreal, the people who were there with me, my parents who looked after my children while I was away from home, the events occurring in my social circle, and a sense of the texture of my life during that period of time.
Because the objects in our lives hold memories, it is hard to throw them away, no matter how shabby they have become, or how little we now make use of them. Would the stories disappear if we threw the objects away and edited the pile of stuff down to a more manageable level? Perhaps not. But the act of viewing and using many of those objects provides connectivity to the past and helps to create a sense of continuity in our life story.
Our stuff offers life possibilities as we acquire it, signifies that we are of value as individuals, represents aspects of our identity, and holds our memories. That is why we love our stuff.