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Opinion Column
For the week of May 3 through May 9, 2000

Possessions’ mystique translates into different values

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

Material items and our relentless pursuit of them have a tendency to clutter up our lives. As we get older and more desperate for the truth of our lives, the last thing we need is clutter obscuring our vision.

Possession starts at a young age.

My son, who is under 2 years old, seems to be fixated on the concept. When we are in the yard working, he will tell me no fewer than seven times, "I need that," referring to whatever tool I happen to be holding. Usually on the eighth or ninth, "I need that," I hand it over to him. With tool in hand, he immediately looks up at me with a crooked, self-satisfied smile and says, "Mine!"

Initially it was, as with so many parenthood experiences, slightly alarming. How could materialism have seeped into his little life so quickly? Well, after a few rounds of the "I need that" game, it occurred to me that it had nothing to do with materialism and everything to do with identity. Possession of anything is predicated upon a sense of individuality. Without the latter, the former is meaningless. By claiming a stake on any given thing around him, a child is saying to the world, "Hey, I am here. I am distinct from all of the others." It is a way of reaffirming one’s toehold in a big world.


Adults and their possessions are a more complicated affair. The hue of the relationship, like a diamond we might covet, depends upon the angle at which we look at it.

Instead of reaffirming our identities, possessions can too often define and consume us. Because "things" cost money, the accumulation of them is a signal to others that we have somehow found our way to money. And in modern societies, money is equated, rightly or wrongly, with value.

Big possessions like houses and boats are often deemed a reflection of a person’s status. Of course, it is not always an appropriate connection. I know plenty of people who have contributed very little to the world as a whole yet have been wildly compensated for it. Likewise, others who have given all of themselves to society are struggling to pay their heating bills.

Too often we make the logical leap from, "he drives a valuable car," to "therefore, he is a valuable person." The inverse assumption (he does not drive a valuable car, therefore he is not a valuable person) can be just as dangerous. Drawing conclusions about others and their possessions can lead one through trap doors.

One can just as easily suffer self-delusion when it comes to the items we own. No doubt, nice things are fun to use. They are esthetically pleasing, they work well, they cause us no grief. It is when we begin to equate the nice things with character that we get into murky territory. It is one thing to enjoy our possessions. It is another to see ourselves through the prism of them.

It would seem that we spend a lot of our lives growing up. By growing up I mean truly understanding ourselves, those close to us, and perhaps a small slice of the world around us. Material items and our relentless pursuit of them have a tendency to clutter up our lives. As we get older and more desperate for the truth of our lives, the last thing we need is clutter obscuring our vision.


To avoid appearing too moralistic, I have to say that possessions are not all bad. Oddly enough, the inanimate items we drag through life can sometimes have a real effect on us. They can become objects of our affection.

Certainly, most things that we use are purely functional. A few items in our lives, however, seem to capture our attentions and thoughts. Sometimes they are the things that connect us to other times and people when our bridge to them has long since washed away.

I have, for example, an old French corkscrew that had been my mother’s for all of her life. There was nothing particularly special about it except the fact that she loved it. She always raved about how well it worked, how old and simple and dependable it was. It was just a corkscrew, but somehow she made it hers. So years and years later, it sits in my drawer. Every single time I pick it up I think of my mother. Invariably, a memory of her spins off from that moment. For an instant, she is there, a full force in my life again. It is a case of an object opening a door to real thoughts and memories. Certainly those thoughts and memories are always there inside us, but, without some nudge from the material world, they might be irretrievable.

Once, I casually mentioned to my son that the corkscrew belonged to his grandmother. Now every time he sees it he reminds me, "That’s Paula’s." Now even he has a connection, however faint, to a woman he never had the chance to meet. And so that corkscrew has bridged three generations, tied together two lives that might have been too far apart in time to connect otherwise.

So why do certain things in our lives (for me: a corkscrew, an old bell my brother and I came running to as children, a baby cup) touch us? I think it is because certain possessions simply endure. They survive all of our traumas and dislocations. They are there in the corner of the room for all of those years, for all of the moments, good and bad. And because they are always there, they offer us a shred of security, some semblance of permanence and continuity in an otherwise transient life.

I tend to think of those special items in our lives like the blankets toddlers carry around. In actuality, we don’t truly "possess" anything. We just drag things around with us for a while. Ultimately, they outlive us.

The magic of certain possessions is that, eventually, people rub off on them. Just as a blanket will always hold the essence of the child long after he has left the room, our oldest, dearest possessions become imparted with the emotions of our lives.

When we finally leave the world we leave our possessions behind. They have no place where we are going. They do have a place here, however. They remain for others to find, pick up, rub between their fingers. They help them wonder about all that they cannot touch.


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