I‘ve been spending a lot of time lately reading and thinking about the roles that material possessions have in our relationships. Here’s what I’ve concluded: Things are important.
The first two years that we were married, my husband and I fought A LOT. About the dinner dishes.
It may be that we weren’t really fighting about the dinner dishes. You might say we were sorting through our individual experiences and expectations to fashion a new household that was uniquely ours. Sure, there was some value to all of those heated conversations, both in terms of substance (what are our standards of cleanliness?) and procedure (how do we disagree?).
But get this.
Things were a lot better when we moved. To an apartment with a dishwasher.
Likewise, I once had a conversation with a colleague who was raving about an expensive newfangled oven-y thing in her fancy kitchen. She said that it had transformed her life. Yeah, TRANSFORMED. Through some magic that this appliance did for her (I didn’t quite get it, obviously), she now ate home-cooked dinners instead of having takeout every night.
Like the dishwasher in the second apartment I shared with my husband, my colleague’s oven thingie was the catalyst for healthier eating and an improved relationship with her family. Now that she had this Thing, she was happier than she’d been before.
Things don’t make you happy. But…
I know that dishwashers and newfangled ovens don’t actually MAKE people happy. But they can affect (sometimes dramatically), the ways that we spend our time as individuals and how we spend time with our spouses.
Having the Thing isn’t always right. Sometimes Not Having the Thing is the best course of action. There are surely people out there who cherish the time they spend washing and drying dishes with their partners, and the insightful or productive conversations that spring up during that time. The dishwasher that dissolves discord in my house could disconnect lines of communication in another home.
So I’m not saying that it’s important to Have Things. I’m saying that Things play important roles in our lives. And when we can take a bird’s-eye view of the role that the presence or absence of a Thing has in our lives, we can thoughtfully craft our relationships with each other and those Things.
Some of the more obvious Things to think about (and rant or rave about) in terms of the effect that they have on our lives and our relationships are:
- Television (fun shared cultural experience or isolating conversation-stopper?)
- High-speed internet (amazing work tool, fun shared cultural experience, or isolating distraction?)
- Smart phones (amazing work tool, great connection with family, or vehicle of detachment?)
- Cars (facilitates more time with family or part of an unnecessarily-sedentary lifestyle?)
- Running water (hard to be neutral on this one, but still—maybe you’d have a great time pumping water alone or with your partner?)
- Clothes washing machines (hard to be neutral on washing machines, too, but hey, maybe some people love themselves a tub and washboard)
- Blenders (healthy and delicious smoothies, baby food, or too many margaritas?)
- Barbecue grills (fun with friends, or way too much protein?)
(Obviously, that’s just a small sampling of Things, and the notes above just scratch the surface of the impact that a particular Thing might have on any person’s life.)
Things are complicated.
There are a lot of forces in our culture promoting materialism. And there’s a lot (but maybe not enough) of counter-talk about simplicity. No one wants to announce that they’re straight-up materialistic without adding some qualification. It just sounds too shallow. And there’s lots of moral and religious support for an ascetic approach based on the notion that Stuff (or Money) is the root of all evil. But that’s a tough position to implement while participating in most of our culture and our communities.
Also, some possessions have primarily instrumental value, like a can opener. Others primarily play a role in providing comfort, say, a pillow. And other possessions help us to define ourselves; they solidify personal history (like your grandmother’s ugly scarf that you keep anyway) or contribute to identity (like a violin to a violinist). But the lines between a possession’s instrumental value, comfort, and self-identity aren’t clear-cut. I’ve got a kick-ass can opener that I really enjoy using. So the design of the can opener has a little bit to do with how I define myself. I like the design, it says something about me beyond just that I want to get my cans open. And somebody who has a designer couch, for example, may have chosen the couch because it’s comfortable and because its aesthetics or brand associations contribute to the owner’s sense of self. And if you want to take “the personal is political” as a consumer philosophy, everything you own says something about you and functions as an anthropological artifact.
So… our relationships with Things can be super-complicated.
The super-vague advice I gave.
At a wedding I attended recently, each guest was asked to write a note with a piece of advice about marriage. I wrote about our dishwasher discovery, and how it smoothed my relationship with my husband. And I told the couple that my wish for them was that they would smoothly find the (figurative) Dishwasher. Meaning that I hoped that they would find the element or elements that would make their lives together run more smoothly.
And the truth of the matter is that that element might be a Thing—its presence OR its absence.