When Stuff No Longer Matters
A classic scene from 1999’s Best Picture, American Beauty: Kevin Spacey makes a move on wife Annette Bening in the living room, and for a moment it appears that the two will rekindle what’s long been lost. Annette’s character notices the beer in her husband’s hand.
A: You’re going to spill beer on the couch.
K: So what? It’s just a couch.
A: This is a four thousand dollar sofa, upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch.
K: It’s...just...a...couch! This isn’t life! This is just stuff.
I love that scene, and not just for the entertainment value; it beautifully captures what’s wrong with many people’s lives. How many of us have become possessed by our possessions?
Lately, I’ve pondered where our desire for “stuff” comes from, because after a decade of watching my kids accumulate books, Legos, jewelry and stuffed animals, it’s become apparent that collecting things begins early on. Even for the very young, something about possession – of calling an object one’s own – is appealing, so that it’s not enough to just see a pretty rock on the Lake Michigan shore; the rock must be picked up and added to a collection of other rocks. Whether this is a completely natural instinct or the product of a consumer society is open to debate, I suppose, but as a child, I possessed many things, and most of them cost nothing: rocks, pinecones, aluminum, pennies, beer cans, a bad attitude and shot-gun shells.
(That last one is a bit perplexing. Why my parents allowed me to wander unsupervised in the woods behind our home where people apparently shot loaded weapons is just one more in a long line of unanswerable questions about my youth.)
When we become adults, most of our childhood collections are discarded or stowed away in boxes, but we manage to fill the void with other kinds of collections. When my wife and I moved into a bigger house in 2000, we had to fill it with something, and although we didn’t call our new purchases “collections,” they served the same function. Instead of scanning the earth for rocks and pine cones, I scanned store shelves for paintings and frames, accents and knickknacks, not to mention storage bins for the collections of our children. And unlike the treasures of my youth, these new acquisitions cost money.
Well into my forties now, the idea of accumulating more “stuff” is not only unappealing, it’s terrifying. What I used to consider important – my CD collection, for instance – I now view as little more than a nuisance. I’m trying to stick to a new rule: if something comes into my house, something must leave my house. It may lead to more yard sales, but it should also lead to less clutter and less stress. And maybe it’ll even help me to avoid that impulse buy.
I recently read the following quote by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut about growing older and how our views on possessions change over time.
Several years ago, we sold our home and disposed of many things, including significant parts of our library. Surprisingly, disposing of our cherished acquisitions collected during three and a half decades stirred not an ounce of regret. After all, books are only things that join the grand parade of desire/ acquisition/ possession/ discard...having grown old, we stop acquiring things and instead acquire a growing indifference to them.
I wonder if we all grew indifferent a little earlier, if we might be better off.