Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stuff and Nonsense

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with stuff.

On the one hand, I like stuff. I am both a pack rat and an archivist, and I am rarely happier than I am when surrounded by my stuff, organizing it, looking through it, or just exploring it. Most of my stuff is books, admittedly, and these lend themselves to those kinds of activities. It is much the same story with photographs, memorabilia, letters, and the vast array of otherwise valueless objects that I keep on hand because they tell me stories or provide me comfort. Whether this congruency between my stuff and what I wish to do with it is a cause or an effect or whether this distinction is relevant at all is just one of those questions I choose to ignore.

On the other hand, stuff doesn’t have all that much of a hold on my mind. I lose things, which is often just the prelude stage of making exciting re-discoveries. I give things away, sometimes as loans and sometimes as gifts, and so often the difference between those two things is just whether I notice when they don’t come back.

As a historian, I am trained to value stuff for the stories it tells, for the comfort it brings, and for the material security it provides in a world that for so long was defined by scarcity and want and remains so even today for so many.

As a former firefighter I was trained to ignore stuff and focus on the people. Property can be replaced. People can’t. Let the property burn until you get the people out, let it continue to burn if you can’t guarantee that your own people can get out, and sleep the sleep of the virtuous for doing so.

So it’s a conflict, sometimes.

There is a lot of value judgment placed on stuff and one’s attitude toward it these days.

Some folks think stuff is all there is – he who dies with the most toys wins, and all that. Acquisition is virtue, and woe betide anyone who presumes to place any burdens, intellectual, financial or otherwise, upon one’s stuff.

Others think it is an encumbrance and an obstacle, and the goal should be to transcend stuff and our attachment to it and become a figure of pure emotion, or some ascetic Ghandian saint.

But I can’t quite manage either of those extremes. I like stuff and would rather not live without it. But I can’t really find it in my heart to like it more than anything else.

Just another one of those quandaries that define my everyday world, I suppose.

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