On Stuff and Junk
When I was growing up we had a running joke about the difference between stuff and junk. Stuff is essential and important, while junk is not. (Or was it the other way around? I think it was a matter of debate.) We also had the famous family filing system – which involved lots of piles. In fact, I even managed to get through college and graduate school using the piling-filing system – until the piles collapsed and I eventually resorted to sending everything to great big filing cabinet in the sky (i.e. the trash can).
Why am I talking about piles of stuff and junk? Because we recently had to renew our contract on our storage unit in New Jersey, which is currently housing all the stuff that we want to keep but didn’t want to have to move to London. For those long-time readers, you might remember the angst and agony we went through when we first decided to move, with all the packing and the repacking. There were endless debates about whether we should keep this really great bright green rug we got from Ikea, or sell it on the internet for $10 and grab the cash. (We decided to sell it.) But there were a few things we just couldn’t possible get rid of. My books, mostly, but also a lot of DVDs that Alex collected in college, my old bed frame (it’s a brass bed and I have a fantasy that its worth a lot of money on the Antiques Roadshow), and some kitchen equipment that was just too heavy to ship (oh, how I miss our waffle maker!).
Just this morning I read this article on Salon.com, and it made me stop and think about our storage unit. Why did we get it again? Because we wanted to keep a bunch of stuff, but not have it with us or use or get any value out of it … and instead spend money to keep in a place that’s 3,000 miles away … does that make sense? Maybe it’s time to think about shipping the important things over here to the UK, and getting rid of the rest of it! After all, it seems more and more likely that we’ll be here in London beyond our initial time frame.
But back to the article! The paragraph that really struck me was this:
…we’d be more distressed to return home and find our living room sofa gone than to learn that the value of our home had dropped by a few percentage points. This is because certain possessions are “self-constitutive.” They are intimately bound up with our sense of who we are. “A person cannot be fully a person without a sense of continuity of self over time,” wrote University of Michigan law professor Margaret Jane Radin in her seminal article “Property and Personhood.” “In order to lead a normal life, there must be some continuity in relating to ‘things’.”
Most of you who know me now would probably not say that I’m a materialistic person. After all, we upped and moved to London with only 6 suitcases and 2 cats. But I think it’s been a process throughout my twenties, where I had to accept that “things” (regardless of whether they are categorized as stuff OR junk) are just things. And things are not really important. While a part of me agrees with Radin, part of me thinks that is IS possible be “fully a person” withOUT the connection to physical items. Have I transferred that need to people or place? Perhaps. Is that better? Well, I’d definitely be more upset about losing a person, or losing London, than I would about losing a physical thing, even if it was my precious collection of books.
I know so many people who have houses (or multiple houses!) that are just full of junk (I cannot in good conscience call it stuff) … and I think that maybe Radin’s idea about how stuff provides continuity could be a key in understanding that. Are hoarders doing it because they are missing some key sense of self? I dunno, but if I ever go back to school to get a PhD in Psychology (which is my plan for my next life), then I think that would be a pretty cool thesis!