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Needless Things


We are a culture of acquisition. We place an inordinate value on things. Virtually everyone who reads this has something in their possession that they don’t need to have but if you ask them to get rid of it, would get that cold feeling in the pit of their stomach of not wanting to let go.

When you think about it, we are all about the stuff. I am myself a packrat of occasionally epic proportions. I have at one time or another collected baseball cards, comic books, stamps, coins, business cards, records/cassette tapes/compact discs and videos. Doreen collects salt/pepper shakers and magnets.

Do we need any of those things? No, but we both enjoy the thrill of collecting. Whenever we go somewhere, we have to get a magnet to commemorate our appearance in that place. It’s almost like physical evidence that we were actually there. “See kids? We really did go to China. See the magnet?”

There are things you need to have; a bed, clothing, food, the means to cook your food, the means to store your food and clothing and maybe somewhere to sit. However, having just the necessities is mere existence so we add things for our entertainment and comfort. We buy televisions, iPods, PlayStations and sofas. We put paintings up that enhance the visual delightfulness of our home. We buy vases to put flowers in so that our home smells and looks nice.

Eventually our homes begin to get cluttered. We need clothes for every occasion, so our closets get full of outfits. We need shoes to match the clothes. We need variety so we don’t wear the same combination of things twice. That philosophy carries over to our house as well.

Soon we get seasonal decor and decorations for every holiday; things for Halloween, Christmas, spring, summer, fall. Our storage space begins to get overwhelmed with all the things we only use for a few months out of the year. On top of that, the things we collect, be they stained glass, antiques, salt shakers or frogs. Soon enough our homes are turned into little museums of objects d’art.

There’s nothing wrong with living the way we want to live. There’s also nothing wrong with expressing yourself. That’s one of our natural instincts, to declare our individuality and express it in some way. We do that with the way we dress but also in the way we live. It’s a declaration of who we are, a means of saying “I’m here and I matter!”

What happens in our culture, however, is that we go overboard. We also have a competitive nature; if our friend gets a Blu-Ray player, we have to get one with more bells and whistles. If our neighbor puts up a string of Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving, the next day we’re putting up a visual extravaganza. We are always one-upping each other.

The problem is that we begin to put too much emphasis on things and not enough on what’s really important. Things can be replaced – in fact, it’s inevitable. We grow tired of our things, or we decide to reinvent ourselves and it’s out with the old, in with the new.

Stuff is just that – stuff. Yes, it’s a part of our self-expression but far too often it turns into clutter. The stuff becomes a part of our self-esteem; the more we have, the better we feel. It’s as if our possessions have become a means of declaring our own value to the world – I’ve made enough of myself to be able to afford all these DVDs.

I love movies and I love music, but I’ve discovered that having all these movies on DVD has become a bit of a burden. I feel obligated to watch them and yet I’m far too busy watching new movies and writing reviews for them, so the movies I’ve purchased tend to sit on the shelf for awhile and if I’m too lazy to go and find where it is, I just watch something on On-Demand. So what real value do those DVDs have for me? Not a lot, so Da Queen and I have been winnowing our collection recently.

Music became the same way. I was a rock critic for many years and have tons of CDs I received for review, plus many more I purchased on my own. The sad thing is I never listen to them. Virtually all of my music is digital now, on iTunes or my iPod. What has become of the value of those CDs to me?

This is the question you have to ask yourself when considering your possessions, particularly if your life is getting too cluttered with things: what is the value of these things to me? Some things have sentimental value or have fond memories attached to them; these are beyond price. However, if you have fifty Hummel angels, why do you need 51 if you don’t have a place to display them?

Our world revolves around the things we acquire over our lives but not a one of them do we take with us when we die. How important are they from that perspective? The truth is that what we do take with us is the love and friendship we acquire; that’s what most of us are considering on our deathbeds, the relationships we had. Of how much value are those compared to our collection of vintage Coke bottles?

One of the disadvantages of collecting is that in our zeal to get more, we fail to appreciate what we have. How many people find themselves unable to enjoy their collections because they need one more thing for it to be complete? At what point does it stop being fun and start becoming something that makes us miserable?

Like all things, stuff needs to be a part of our lives in moderation. Our need for these things can sometimes outweigh our common sense; we become obsessive. Now, this isn’t true for everybody mind you; some people live quite nicely without stuff other than the bare minimum. They want nothing more than that because they have different priorities. I’m not saying we need to live like monks.

What I am saying is that possessions are a function of who we are and what we need them to be. Once they begin to overstep their usefulness and becomes means in and of themselves then we’re losing sight of reason. Remember this: a rose by any other name still smells sweet, but a houseful of roses will make you sick of the smell.

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