Are you your stuff?
The New York Times touches upon the current housing crisis in the U.S. with an article on how many users of rental storage are having a hard time keeping up with payments. While I often disparage the rampant accumulation of material possessions, to be honest with myself is my distaste with stuff or with the way that people will put themselves into debt for stuff. I freecycle occasionally but often do find it hard to let go of things I've acquired. But I am getting better, and I am getting better at not getting it in the first place.
There is a particularly touching series of paragraphs that really caused me pause:
Bill Martin, a 50-year-old former manager in the technology industry, lost his house in the Southern California community of Lake Forest last August. His local self-storage company sent a truck and driver to pick up his things, a service it offers all new customers.
“Storage has my hopes in it,” said Mr. Martin, who sleeps on a foldout bed in his mother’s guest room. “I don’t tell anyone this, but at least once a week I go over and look at my couch, my refrigerator, my TV stand, my mattress and realize I did have a life, and maybe there’s a way to go back to it.”
It's true how much of our identity is associated with our possessions, and our possessions as symbols of our hopes of who we are and who we want to be. I often have spoke of ownership as access, and ownership is a sense of control, and a sense of control often translates to a sense of stability and in proxy safety. I was struck with great sadness that Mr. Martin didn't feel he had a life, but what struck me is how often I feel the same way given our societal pressures. I wonder if he holds pride in his non-tangible accomplishments like completing his education? The work that he's done? Stuff is a translation of our effort in to something we can enjoy, we save for that nice TV, we save for that nice car, it shows that we've worked hard in ways that other things cannot do.
I'm at an age where my friends who remain single, often the subject is how to end that state. A topic where I disagree with many is the area of signaling (my economic mind and evolutionary training says "Charles you moron, of course signaling matters") A friend of mine's lease on a very nice car is coming up and I've been meaning to ask did it make a difference. Other friends have also spoken about the value of having a home and what does it mean in the search for a spouse. If you think I'm kidding check out this Marketplace story about how home ownership is what single women in China are looking for in a man. I will bite my tongue so hard before offering any additional commentary. Do we value stuff because others value us because of our stuff?
How do we look at people who don't believe in stuff. How do we look at a Ghandi? How do we quantify honor and accomplishment outside of the realm of stuff? Does the Nobel have value because the prize amount is a lottery winning amount of a million dollars plus (currency fluctuations notwithstanding) vs a Pulitzer which is only $10,000 US which is a nice amount but not life changing.
How much of our stuff defines our identity? Probably more than we want to admit.