Material World
August 30th, 2010

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.

10 Responses to “Material World”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I think we all enjoy “things”–and like you, I think that’s okay. But like you point out, equilibrium is key. I tend to cherish old things that have been passed onto me. My favorites are ones with a story behind them.

  2. Holly Says:

    I’ve learned very quickly in the past 14 months that the things are not the most important. BUT I can’t give up my purses, and I have way more than 12. :)
    You’re wonderful.

  3. Gale Says:

    Holly – The sacrifices you have made in order to follow your chosen career path will all come back to you someday. If there is any karmic justice in the world it will surely recognize the good you’re doing. In the meantime, I’m glad you’re carrying fabulous bags!

  4. anne Says:

    I, too, like stuff, but only carry one lipstick shade per season. Honestly, I can’t imagine your love of handbags makesyou any less quality an invidual. You’re still a fundamentally generous person…you just know yourself well. If you judged others for their lack of handbag selection? Well, obviously a problem, but I’ve never seen you do that, so I think you’re good to go.

    As for me, I am, and have always been, much more likely blow money on experiences than things. It makes me happy on a Friday night when I can look at my husband and say, “I want a nice meal tonight…let’s try that new place.” And $60 later, I’m full and happy. So I don’t have as much stuff, but I’ve chosen a different brand of “material”. I’m not one to turn down a concert ticket, a plane ticket, a play, or an overpriced hotel room:) And I wonder what the limit should be for me and my weakness??

  5. Angela Says:

    I love my bags and I love shoes but all in moderation. I would not keel over if I didn’t have them, but I feel nice wearing them.

    You have your likes and just as with all of us in differant things. Enjoy!

  6. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    I think it is okay to enjoy and cherish our objects. A little bit of materialism is human. It is when we grow obsessed, when we begin to align our sense of well-being with the quality and quantity of material objects that there is a problem. A thoughtful, provocative post. Thank you!

  7. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Interesting discussion. I do think that collectors (and their collections) fall into a slightly different category. I don’t consider myself materialistic, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy nice things. But square footage? A car? Couldn’t care less. Even my shoes (as much as I enjoy them) – leave me 3 pair, and I’ll be fine.

    As for the sentimental objects – and there I consider myself the current caretaker, as those objects will be passed down to the next generation as they were given to me – they fall into a different category. They are family history. Talismans of a sort.

    And collections are something else again. Art, in particular, is much more to me than a decorative thing or an object. Having friends who are artists, having worked with artists, feeling passionately about art and its importance to our stories, our emotions, our social messaging and simply our need for beauty (in a variety of forms) – art is, to me, very much “alive.”

    Paintings or drawings I’ve researched, hunted down, and been fortunate enough to live with (again, as a caretaker), or those given me by artist friends, or done by my son for that matter – these are very precious. Part of my story as much as separate objects unto themselves. And not about “stuff” or what anyone else thinks.

  8. Christine LaRocque Says:

    Interesting discussion, and lots to consider. I used to be more materialistic than I am now…that is, I used to focus more on buying things than I do now. Some of that comes from being in a different financial position now (two children in daycare), but some comes from finding pleasure in other things. However, I do believe that things make us feel a certain way and can, in some way, comfort us. I’m not a handbag person, but I certainly buy my fair share of books, and coffee mugs. I love coffee mugs. Expensive ones. I also love to drink expensive coffee. I know it’s not a possession, but it’s the same idea. It makes me feel good. I think in moderation it’s all okay. Isn’t life all about moderation?

  9. Kathryn Says:

    I think the important distinction is between having things just to have them – for status sake – and having things because you enjoy and use them. It sounds 12 beautiful handbags are not wasted on you. That would be too many for me but that’s just a difference in personal preference. It doesn’t necessarily mean I am any less materialistic or wasteful.

  10. Gale Says:

    Kathy – Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think you’re right. My mother told me that she once heard a pastor say that materialism is when you start counting things. For instance, having a nice car is not materialistic. Having 5 nice cars perhaps is. As for how to reconcile my handbag example with this notion, I’m not sure. I think it’s as you referenced: if something is used and enjoyed that’s okay. If you have it just to have it (or tell other people that you have it) then you’re treading into dangerous territory.