AUTHOR ESSAY: Taming the Beast Within: The Power of Possessions

It’s fun to buy a new pair of shoes, and objects can make us happy, but ultimately do they really give us what we want? Jane Hammerslough ’82 reflects on the power of possessions.

At my son’s back–toschool night, the smiling self–portraits of second graders hung in the hallway under the bulletin board banner asking, “Who Am I?” Our challenge as parents was to find our own kids among the sea of colorful, unsigned faces. To help, each portrait had a carefully–printed description of its creator stapled to the bottom.

One child wrote that he liked dinosaurs and soccer and hated cleaning up his room. Another noted that he was tall, had green eyes, and liked science and his cat. And one of the pieces of writing stood out, not for what it said, but for what it didn’t.The essay began, “I have?” and a long list of things followed: a new video game system, a signed celebrity photograph, coin and card collections, and a television, among other items. There wasn’t a word about what the kid liked or didn’t, no mention of doing sports or music or reading or art. It didn’t include anything about friends or family or even pets.

Of course, all kids sometimes get the “gimmes,” or get obsessed with their toys or the latest collecting fad at school. But surely there was something else the child could say. What kind of materialistic values was that kid learning, anyway? I thought, smug with the knowledge that my own child was the tall one interested in science. For the other young writer, “who I am” was simply a summary of what he owned. It struck me as sad and strange.

And, I’ll admit, a bit unnerving. As I stood in the school hallway, that little essay made something go off in my head. And I didn’t like what I was hearing.

That kid wasn’t the only one living in the place where “who I am” and “what I have” meet. Frankly, my own feelings about wanting, buying, and owning objects were making me increasingly uneasy. Like my inability to see a house on vacation without wanting to own it. Or my worrying that my kids would fall behind their classmates if I didn’t get some new CD–rom or another. Or my near–obsessive, months–long search for the right couch for our family room.

What, me materialistic? I’d never seen myself that way. But there I was, pricing waterfront property instead of enjoying the view, agonizing about depriving my kids instead of noticing the pile of unused CD–roms they already owned, and sweating over fabric swatches for a fantasy family room—instead of spending the time actually doing something with my family. If I wasn’t materialistic, I sure was giving a lot of thought and meaning to material things. And I was beginning to find that my expectations of objects to do something— as well as the time and energy I was devoting to them—weren’t giving me what I wanted.

Okay, we live in a material world, and the stuff we own matters. That doesn’t necessarily make us materialistic, but what we drive, where we live, and what we wear, collect, or covet can all have meaning. After all, objects can make your life easier, give aesthetic pleasure, offer a certain amount of security, deliver a message to other people and sometimes even deliver on the promise of providing hours of fun. And given that the messages linking ownership with identity are louder than ever, the power in possessions isn’t lost on anyone. Not on me, and not even on a 7–year–old. Or perhaps, especially not on a 7–year–old.

So what’s wrong with this picture? I knew that I wasn’t thrilled with the ever–expanding space that objects seemed to be occupying in my life and my thoughts and started asking questions: First off, did anyone else feel the same way?

And I found, overwhelmingly, that I wasn’t alone. Plenty was wrong with the current picture; 95 percent of Americans said most of us are “very materialistic,” and 85 percent believe that young people are far too preoccupied with buying and owning things, according to a Merck Family Fund study. The widespread concern, not just for ourselves, but for our kids and the future, became clear. But it’s also complex. Objects are important, no doubt. But at what price?

That honest, anonymous elementary–school essay took the importance of objects to a troubling extreme, as if owning and being are one and the same. While possessions don’t entirely fill “who I am” for most people, they naturally occupy space as part of “self.” And let’s face it: it’s fun to buy a pair of new shoes sometimes. It’s a pleasure to get the car you’ve coveted for a while. And there’s nothing like that look on a child’s face when she opens your gift and it’s just what she’d hoped for. Objects can, at times, make us happy. But ultimately, do they give us what we really want?

And that’s where things started getting, well, tricky. Possessions have meaning, and always have. Possessions carry power, and always will. The question was not whether objects themselves are good or bad, but how and why the faith we place in ownership may intrude on what we want most?.

From the book, Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions. Copyright 2001 by Jane Hammerslough. Reprinted by permission of Perseus Publishing. All rights reserved.