In Defense of Things and Stuff

consumerism, shopping, stuff

Things and stuff are fairly easy to lament as toxic byproducts of a society that worships the individual and lavishes praise upon those who have managed to accumulate the most. Things and stuff can be anything: bass boats, in ground or above ground swimming pools, expensive barbeques, clothing, exercise shoes, two story split levels, fancy watches, designer overcoats, single malt scotches, consumer electronics, or entry level luxury cars, or any of those things and many others. Considering particularly the last 50 years of American history, the quest for suburban garages full of stuff basically hand delivered a Great Depression sized economic catastrophe to our doorstep in 2008. That’s a gross oversimplification, I know.

So a vacuous, pathological need for things is of course bad. It ruins finances, at macro and micro-economic levels, it reduces meaning and value to inanimate objects, and it does almost nothing for the quality of life of anybody in general.

However, I think things, that is, material possessions, are essential to happiness and operate in many ways as extensions of the oddball collection of traits and experiences we call ‘ourselves’. The difference here between things and stuff that falls into the category of hollow materialism and those which add meaning, texture, and depth to our lives is this: the important things have remained. They have survived. Through moves, children, disasters of various sorts, the bits of material culture we own that become valuable extensions of ourselves are those dinged up tables, the tattered shoes and t-shirts, the ancient toasters and sputtering vacuum cleaners. It is, in fact, the things with which we have a history of continuous interaction that become almost personified, imbued through some arcane and unobservable transfer of personality from the self to the surroundings.

Creaking laptops, old iPods, yellowed books, cornerless posters, wallets, favorite ties, furniture – sometimes these objects don’t have any real sentimental value, they are not anointed with the rich nostalgia of photos or letters or place, they are simply totemic. Comfortable touchstones that lend continuity to our memories and thus our personal narratives. Accretion of things actually provides a rich and detailed history of where we’ve been and when we were there, insofar as we are capable of remembering details about the items.

So no, things and stuff are not always bad. My college reading lamp, black, two-hinged, spring loaded, purchased from Wal-Mart, is sitting on my nightstand in my room at home in the United States, on it, in the dust is the faint outline of some other trinkets: a nixon watch (from my very enjoyable time as an employee at Boardparadise), and a leather bracelet I picked up at a Costa Rican market. I am drawing no line here between rational, responsible accumulation of things and the mindless, dogged pursuit of stuff, I just thought, considering how often I rail against consumerism and materialism, that I should explore a different side for once.

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