If we’re going to get right down to brass tacks about it, I’m materialistic. It’s certainly not my best quality, but we all have traits that rank below the 50th percentile. It’s true, I love they way a nice leather handbag feels on my shoulder. I love the way the mattes on the watercolors over my living room mantel match the wall color perfectly, setting off both the frames and the paintings. I love having 15 lipstick color choices when I open the makeup case in my purse each morning, allowing me to select a shade that matches both my mood and outfit. I like these things, and countless other things in a similar vein.
I don’t admit this easily because it carries with it all kinds of implications. There is a common belief – and not altogether erroneous – that materialism is bad. Period. Materialistic people are shallow and vain and inconsiderate. Right? Maybe not. I think that materialism isn’t as big a sin as we might be inclined to believe.
In an interesting (and somewhat biologically-based) article on The Huffington Post last week Dylan Kendall wrote an article about whether or not objects can make us happy. She aptly notes that, “… objects have stories and the best ones we carry with us our whole lives. Like our grandmother’s table lamp or the baseball with which we hit our first home run, objects have the power to become more than just ‘things.’”
We can all relate to the significance of these kinds of objects. Like most people I have objects of varying value that are priceless to me because of what they represent. But for the purposes of this discussion I’m more intrigued by the objects that have no particular emotional underpinning, but which we enjoy. Take my handbags as an example. I have close to a dozen and they were all moderately expensive. Do I need nearly a dozen handbags? Absolutely not. But I use and enjoy each one. I switch bags several times each week. I choose one based on my clothing and take pleasure in the way they are functional and stylish at the same time.
This leads me to wonder about the line that we all want not to cross – the line between caring about our belongings and caring only about our belongings. To what extent is it acceptable to have and enjoy our possessions even if they lack a higher level of sentimental meaning? And when do we enter the territory of wanting things just to have them, rather than for their value via form or function? Further still, how does the collector (of stamps, tiny commemorative spoons, or even cars) factor into this moral landscape?
I suppose I would draw that line in the form of a pie chart. I have and enjoy all kinds of objects. Some of those objects are practical, like my food processor or a nice pen. Others are less practical, like artwork or lipstick, but still bring me pleasure. But my enjoyment of these kinds of things should only take up a certain portion of my life and my focus – a relatively narrow sliver of my pie chart. I should also spend time focusing on mental and spiritual growth, maintaining relationships, helping other people, and behaving charitably. As long as those things are bigger priorities in my life then I’m comfortable that my enjoyment from material possessions is not overblown. But the moment that my little equilibrium tips in the direction of objects over everything else is the moment I need to reevaluate my priorities.