Once upon a time, we had some neighbors who were hoarders. They had stuff in crammed the attic, stuff jammed in the crawl space, and stuff piled in every closet and cupboard. Bathroom counters overflowed as bottles crowded the edge of the sink. The dining room table had a small space carved out of piles of mail and newspapers for eating and work. The living room had a path from door to couch. The garage was so full that they parked on the driveway, even when it snowed.
It was fascinating to talk to this family about their stuff. I’d always assumed that most hoarders held onto items as mementos of the past (and for some of them, that is probably the case). But when this family talked about their possessions, their language was always future-focused. They were acquiring and saving goods for a life that they were planning to have in the future. These items made One Day seem more attainable, because it was already tangible. Cocktail attire was saved because it was necessary to wear to the office party if one them got that new job. Excessive Christmas lights would be needed to illuminate the bigger house they were one day going to own. Baby furniture was on sale and needed to be purchased for the grown children who lived at home, but who might one day have babies (they weren’t in relationships).
I remember one year when they tried to join the neighborhood garage sale and purge some of their belongings; I was outside, chatting with them. The daughter tried to put a pair of pink roller skates on the sale table, and the mom wouldn’t let her.
“Those were your first skates!” she objected. “I remember how much you loved them.”
The daughter remained persistent for a few minutes that she was absolutely going to sell the skates. What changed her mind was when her mom said “But don’t you want to pass them down to your daughter one day?”
The skates went back inside the garage, and the family sold about 15 dollars’ worth of items that day.
The skates, like so much else this family owned, had become icons of a future life, links to future selves, a means of mental escape. The value of most of their objects wasn’t located in the present; in fact, the objects were making the present miserable. They were part of a future story that the family had constructed for themselves.
It’s easy to watch and criticize, but it’s deeply unsettling to put the focus back on myself and realize how often I employ this same mentality in regard to my possessions. I don’t have a very hard time getting rid of things, but sometimes I buy things with a story in mind. I purchase a bag or those shoes or that dress because I want to be that woman. I buy that upscale coffee and craft beer and French perfume not just because it’s a pleasurable experience in the present, but because it’s part of a lifestyle I want for myself.
In the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rebecca Bloomwood has an imaginary conversation with a mannequin who is trying to convince her to buy an expensive green scarf, even though she can’t afford it. The scarf isn’t an ordinary scarf, the mannequin argues. It is something that “will become part of a definition of you–of your psyche. The Girl in the Green Scarf.” It’s a funny moment in the movie, but at its essence, it’s a common experience. We buy things to curate an identity for ourselves, to manage how other people perceive us. We do the same thing online–we select photos and post things that align with the narrative we’ve chosen for our lives. Our material possessions are an extension of that self-narration.
Marketing campaigns only feed this mentality. Commercials don’t just present us with goods and services that have a specific purpose; they present us with objects and experiences that are part of a desirable lifestyle. Buy the thing (so the story goes) and the life will follow.
How do we counter this mentality when we discover it in ourselves? First, we have recognize the false nature of the promises located in material objects. The life we want will never be found in a purchase. Second, we need to analyze the nature of the relationship we have to our stuff and ask ourselves why we feel like we need or want certain things. Are we holding onto things because they support or enhance or beautify our lives right now, or are we holding onto them because they will play a part in our lives some day? If the answer is “some day,” we need to step back and assess whether or not we’re being honest with ourselves about our life’s direction and purpose. Finally, and most importantly, we have to locate our identities and our hope for the future in the real, actual promises God has made to His people, like “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Moths destroy, Jesus said. Thieves break in and steal. And where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be.