Monday, October 19, 2015

How much of "us" resides in our stuff?

My friend Chris has found herself the caretaker of the personal memorabilia of a man she barely knew. She has his diplomas, photo albums, letters, awards and trophies. It’s all in one box that she acquired when she moved all her mother’s belongings out of Arizona and into her garage.

The man is her mother’s second husband, not Chris’ father. Chris says, “He had no children and his first wife is dead so I guess I feel I have some sort of responsibility for his personal effects.”

As she described this to us – De-Clutterers Anonymous – we said, “Get rid of it.” But this wasn’t really the typical de-cluttering dilemma.

Chris feels it’s like this man’s life, that it deserves more respect than taking it to the dump. That these are all that’s left of a life that was lived, so how should it be … jettisoned?

This is an interesting question with a bunch of different answers. First, I guess, is the “it’s not his life, it’s just stuff” answer. That once our lives end, we are only the memories in whomever’s mind so the stuff is just … stuff. You can’t take it with you because it’s not you. It’s Things.

But there’s another metaphysical aspect to all this: how much of ourselves gets imbued in our physical possessions, the things we choose to save? When does the stuff we save represent “us” and when is it just “stuff”? And isn’t there some intermediate step in there, when it’s “our stuff”?
Is memory a necessary part of that? So if I hold my father’s tools, am I somehow connected to him because they were his and I remember him or is there something of him residing in the tools? What if, like Chris, you don’t even know him or have memories of him; are the objects devoid of meaning? Does it matter that once he had meaning for her mother?

Chris won’t take his stuff to the dump. She thinks she’s going to burn it. The De-Clutterers thought that was fitting. What does burning mean that the dump doesn’t?
As a hard-core recycler, I actually do things like take trophies into trophy places, vases into florists, paper to the recycling center. This could be a way of giving further life to his now-ended life, like donating corneas.

On the one hand, reflecting on all this just makes me want to get rid of more stuff so no one has to fret over how respectful or disrespectful, painful or uncomfortable, disposing of it is. “I’m not there” after all. But on the other hand, I gave my stuff to the library archives so I’d be “somewhere.” Obviously, thinking about all this is complicated and fraught with … feelings. I’m going to bed.

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