In Up In The Air, George Clooney espouses stripping our lives down to the bare essentials, the vital constituents, materially and socially. At a seminar, he gives a speech in which he lists the endless detritus a human accumulates throughout its life: “The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks. Then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV…Your couch, your car, your home.” Then he asks the audience to unpack it all, including their relationships. While the film treats his philosophy with a degree of dramatic irony—after all, we know this is a sad man plagued by loneliness and existential angst — I would argue, in moderation, this sounds pretty liberating. Although do I think we are “sharks”, as Clooney puts it? Well, no, or not me at least. But I do think there’s a tremendous psychological/spiritual burden in connecting yourself to too many objects (also, people and places but I’ll restrict myself here to possessions).
People roll through life like Katamaris, picking up objects like juicers, rugs, decorative mirrors, placemats, vases, granite countertops, etc.; yielding to their primal drive to hunt and gather regardless of whether these items are actually useful. In my family, this manifests itself in plates, countless decorative plates no one may eat off of, exiled to the cabinets forevermore. I suspect my extended family’s dishware, if assembled in a single stack, would rise up past the moon, then topple over and kill thousands.
But eventually, we exceed capacity, and we need ever larger receptacles for our objects: a bag, a closet, an apartment, a house, a bigger house, a storage container, and so on (see: George Carlin’s “A Place For My Stuff”). Before you know it, you end up curator of The Museum of Uninteresting Objects. It’s exhausting, managing all these objects, nearly a full-time job in itself with all the cleaning and organizing, and God help you if you have to move. Then there’s the mental cloudiness that comes from a cluttered environment seeping into your psyche like a leaky submarine. The internal inevitably reflects the external.
I actually think Clooney’s “unpack the suitcase” metaphor is too weak. The way I see it, every object you own is connected to you by a string like the house in Up, and each string is tied to a fishhook embedded in your abdomen. The more objects, the more strings, and the greater the weight on those fishhooks. From Martha Stewart, IKEA catalogues, and HGTV, we’re led to believe each of our objects is a synecdoche for our true selves, and so we invest our sense of individuality in them, but you are not a collection of miscellaneous objects assembled out of the environment any more than an ant is an anthill. You are just yourself, a consciousness in a brain in a skull. That is all.
One reason for acquiring so many objects is to show what evolutionary psychologists call “resource-holding potential”, a way of advertising to potential mates your Darwinian fitness in regards to procuring things, buying things, having things; as in, the practice of bridal dowries or that episode of Girls where Lena Dunham loses her damn mind over Patrick Wilson’s house. Or picture a squirrel lady who, being responsible and assiduous, has stored plenty of nuts for winter. She goes to visit a sexy squirrel boy she’s been dating, only to discover this boy has acquired no nuts, is in fact utterly nutless. “I can’t have baby squirrels with you,” she says. “There won’t be enough nuts between us to keep them from starving.” And the male squirrel says, “But stockpiling nuts makes my tree cramped and claustrophobic, and I actually don’t find nuts all that palatable, and besides, we live next to a grocery store dumpster. We have everything we need.” It doesn’t matter to the responsible lady squirrel. He is displaying poor “resource-holding potential”, the dummy.
Another reason: you believe your objects are magically imbued with the essence of dead relatives; e.g., your aunt’s old rocking chair, your grandmother’s teapot, your great uncle’s oak dresser. This is a great way to not only foist vast quantities of ancient junk on children, but to instill constant low-level anxiety regarding its preservation. Find yourself shouting, “Did you spill wine on my grandmother’s silk tablecloth, you stupid son of a bitch?” or “Oh my God, I broke my great great grandfather’s toilet paper holder!” An object is not automatically conferred value simply because it’s old, and perhaps even deserves less value for being fragile and decayed. The only inherited items I see as precious include art, letters, and photographs; all of these items were made (by the relative), not purchased.
Another reason: consumer behaviors, i.e. shopping, trigger the neurotransmitter dopamine, the body’s reward chemical. This promotes purchasing junk and thus, subverts dopamine’s more enriching purpose which is to encourage the brain to seek out intellectual connections, divine meaning, and synthesize ideas—that is to say, creativity. This is probably why Christmas shopping makes you feel so narcotized and why a director’s movies often become more and more awful as he gets richer and richer (see: George Lucas, James Cameron, Tim Burton, etc.).
When my apartment building caught fire a few months ago, I had to quickly assess what possessions warranted salvation while glass and rubble rained down outside my window and people ran around screaming and smoke alarms shrieked in my ears. After a moment’s consideration, I grabbed my computer, a change of clothes, a couple books, and a snack cake, and threw them in my bag. Then I looked around my room, which was amazingly bare and unfurnished, and I thought, Is this it? Is there really nothing else I need? My bag wasn’t even full, but there just wasn’t. Such a strange and cathartic feeling to watch my apartment building on fire from across the street and realize everything left inside, nearly everything I owned could be incinerated and I’d be fine with it.