Sunday, May 11, 2008

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.


At 10:39 AM , Blogger arduous said...

You're absolutely right. There is a lot of pressure for men to "signal" wealth and bread winner qualities to women. And it sucks. Similarly, women have to spend lots of money on clothes and makeup to appear attractive to the opposite sex.

But frankly, if a woman is only interested in you for your stuff, is she really the right person for you? So why bother "signalling" anyway?

Also, there are increasingly more women who don't care about that crap. I've always made more money than my significant others, and many many of my girlfriends make more money than their SOs. And there are a ton of women out there who aren't that materialistic and couldn't care less what kind of car you drive.

At 4:33 PM , Anonymous KaRi from TPSradio said...

I've lived in CaLi since '82 and am proud to announce that I rarely meet gals who value possessions and what she "can get" from a man over their personality, etc.

It could be that I'm in Long Beach which seems to be more down-to-earth than LA or Orange County..

At 10:07 PM , Anonymous CindyW said...

I don't love stuff in general. But I must say that in some way you are your stuff though. My brother and sister in-laws are into ostentatious decor which is just so them. Hummer drivers drive Hummers because who they are. And I have a closet full of gear (some only used once) to match who I am :)

In a world where personal communication and understanding are challenging, we present ourselves through our stuff. I don't think it is necessarily bad. But when we buy into advertising and branding wholesale, what we present then is not necessarily ourselves, but what we have bought into

At 10:16 PM , Blogger Charles said...

It's tough, since we are social creatures and like the Smiths song "How Soon is Now?"

"I am Human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does"

It's a topic as people try to figure out how to get and get along with an S.O. and I speak in generalities, but signaling is really something there, whether it's been socialized into us, or is more primal. I agree with Arduous that not everyone is like that, and I do feel that non-materialism will be trendy. (Can't wait for Madonna's new song "Non-Material Girl" and then we'll know it's trendy)

The question is what does one's stuff or absence of stuff represent. Does it represent poverty, does it represent frugality, minimalism. Or does it represent nothing at all. In the NYT stories, the feeling that one once had a life, when his stuff had a home really touches something basic, a sense of dominion in some manner.

Kari makes a really interesting observation between SoCal and NorCal. I have friends who find Silicon Valley more materialistic and status conscience than LA when they move up here, this despite the protestations of those who live here. Where there is success, wealth and power there is a bizarre distortional effect on professed values.

Someone I swim with once when I commented about where I went to school rather obliquely said you east coast overachievers (I paraphrase) just say where you went and get it over with. And it's true, the indirect response says more about the answer than the direct one.

Can consumption goods be separated completely from identity. Probably not, but understanding the space between our stuff is no easier than the stuff iteself.

Thanks for the comments, if asserting our impact over the planet in consumption is part of our social dance than we might not have to change the music, but learn new steps too.

At 10:23 AM , Blogger arduous said...

Charles, you're totally right. I am trying to pare down the "stuff" in my life, but I still have maybe 300 books. I say I need them because I refer to them, and that's sometimes true, but really it's because I love books, and books are who I am.

Now, in the past year of non-consumerism, I have gotten rid of probably around 30 books, but I've also bought around 10-15 books (used.)

Ultimately, it's all about balance, as with everything else.


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