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Packrat Society


We have a love affair with our things. Particularly in American society, we have this apparently insatiable desire to own more and more. We have developed a pathological need to keep things even when we don’t use them.

We are a packrat society. We have the urge to collect and acquire and feel somehow less successful as people when our collections are incomplete. It is almost a compulsion, guiding us like programs in a robot. Everyone reading this knows somebody in their lives who keeps things that they don’t need to have; maybe it’s even you yourself.

I have movies and compact discs. Our house is full of DVDs and CDs. I don’t even listen to CDs anymore, or rarely. Most of the music I listen to is on my iPod. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of them. In the case of DVDs, I tend to try to watch movies I haven’t seen, either on cable or through rentals. I rarely have time to see the DVDs I own (and to be fair, a lot of that goes to trying to keep my daily movie review blog, Cinema365, current). Do I need all these DVDs? Not in the least, but you can ask Da Queen that whenever she suggests doing a “spring cleaning” of DVDs I tend to get panic-stricken.

I can’t explain it really. For example, I haven’t seen The Last Samurai in probably two years but if Doreen asked me if we could put it in a garage sale or take it to a place that buys used DVDs I’d probably say no, just on the chance that we might want to watch it later. We’re running out of places to store the damn things but still I go to Blockbuster every so often to buy five or six of them at a time.

I think that our materialism stems from the bombardment we get here in this country of advertising. We are told, from an early age, to buy this or buy that. Limited collectors’ editions, get them now before they are all gone. Collect them all! We are shown images of happy people displaying their treasures.

The reality, though, is that these things tend to gather dust in an attic, a closet or a garage and nobody ever sees them, not even the people who own them. I’m sure if you went into your closet right now you would find something you bought years ago but for the life of you can’t remember why you kept it. Go on – I’ll wait while you check it out.

Of course, there are things we need not only out of necessity but for comfort too. We all want a bed to sleep in and pillows, blankets and sheets to make our slumber more comfortable. We need places to sit, tables to sit at and pots and pans to cook in. Our daily lives demand it.

But do we really need these things? After all, humans slept on the ground for thousands of years before beds came along. People still sleep on the ground. Many poor people make due without chairs and tables, or pots to cook in. Humans find a way – it is in our nature to do so.

It’s also in our nature to want more, to be comfortable and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have a very comfortable house and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I enjoy the things that make my home a place of refuge. After all, we spend most of our lives here – we should feel comfortable in it.

Still, this need to acquire goes beyond comfort. I don’t need to have all these DVDs and CDs to be comfortable. Do women really need to have 30 pairs of shoes? Probably not, but some women like to have that many and more so that they can look stylish. The same goes for clothes.

Some men have all the tools you can possibly need on the oft chance that they might use it once or twice during their lifetime. How often are you really going to need all 60 pieces of your socket wrench set after all? I would be willing to bet that most guys only use five or six different settings most of the time and a few more occasionally. I know that on our socket wrench set (a gift by the way) there are more settings we haven’t used than ones that we have.

Obviously, some things command sentimental value. A gift from someone important to you, items related to fond memories that we have. There are things I have that are legacies of my dad that I could never possibly get rid of. These are important things, part of the fabrics of our lives.

But there is no sentimental value in collecting all of the Star Wars collection of glasses from McDonalds. Nobody needs the entire collection of Shrek action figures, unless you’re a kid who plays with them.

What it boils down to is a case of greed. We saw what happened to comic book and baseball card collections, to doll and porcelain collections and we grew to understand that these are investments, not collections. Like any investment, there’s a risk – perhaps the collection of genuine antique bottle caps might someday go up in value, but there’s a chance that it will simply be worthless junk. Still, we hope someday that Junior’s college education will be paid for through our diligence.

Compulsion is a sign of anxiety and we as a society have plenty to be anxious about. Deep down, we realize we are caught in a system designed to keep us from advancing to a higher economic strata and we look for shortcuts to get there. The American dream is that if we work hard and are talented enough, we will finish farther ahead than where we started, giving our children a head start in life. The reality is that even with hard work and talent, that’s generally not enough to move ahead. You need luck and timing to get there too – and maybe a vintage collection of hand-drawn Max Fleischer animation celluloid art. Lacking the last item, we look for something that will take us there and along the way, satisfy an urge we can never truly understand.

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by carlosdev: Packrat Society: http://wp.me/pCGPH-P

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