Sunday, January 1, 2012

Own All the Things! Or, How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Embrace My Inner Materialist

Image by JC Sparks

Own All the Things! Or, How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Embrace My Inner Materialist 

Mr. Typist and I took a giant leap forward yesterday and finally brought real, honest-to-God grown-up furniture to replace the pathetic excuse of a broken-down futon that has been passing for a sofa since we got married. Of course, us being us, we first had to have a huge fight about it, since, depending on who you talk to, he was being patronizing, domineering, and completely un-fun, or, I was being irrational and having emotions when I shouldn’t have been. Or, I was yelling at him for no reason at all. Or he just bloody didn’t get it. Or, I was being spatially inept and he had to do all of the hard thinking. After several teary, heated hours and my sobbing declaration that I didn’t give a damn about a new sofa and we could just die on that crappy futon as far as I was concerned, we finally worked through it and headed off to the home store, where we managed to make a final decision without strangling each other on the demo couches. 

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Replacing the futon has elevated everything to a new level. Now that we will have nice furniture to sit on, we will need to replace all of over the other shabby crap, too. It’s hard to imagine, but we may soon be eating on a proper table that we don’t have to assemble from a box. We may replace our light-wood bookcase to match the new dark brown recliner and sofa. This will almost inevitably lead to a real TV stand to replace the old steamer trunk it’s sitting on now. We could very well become the kind of people who make intentional decisions about our material surroundings, instead simply accepting by default whatever we happen to have lying around because “it’s good enough” or, “it’s got a lot of wear left in it.”

I’ve always had a horror of being trapped by material things—of being “owned” by a house, a high-status car, too many possessions, or too-expensive possessions that I would then be accountable to fuss over and protect and fear for constantly. I made a decision a long time ago that I would never allow material items to have power over my life. I valued the freedom to move through my existence without debt, with low overhead, and the freedom to change locations, jobs or even whole careers as I so chose, without being weighed down, trapped, and smothered by a house or a need for “things.” I told myself that this was a marker of spiritual maturity and responsible citizenship.  But as I age and become a more grounded, settled person, I am beginning to see that my horror of owning possessions is less about spiritual purity and more about fear, lack of trust, and even a lack of self-respect. 

I grew up moving frequently, and not having much of sense of ever owning anything—even the furniture in the military housing we lived in wasn’t owned by us, and was always left behind for the next transitory family. I never developed a healthy respect for possessions, or an appropriate reverence for what it meant to own something of value. The whole idea felt scary to me, and I never felt up to the overwhelming task of intentionally choosing and purchasing anything for longevity or quality. I have often irrationally feared that the moment I become “greedy” and reach out for something nice, I will lose my job, my health, and financial security as punishment. I am afraid I will ruin or break anything of real value. Finally, I associate material things with commitment—and commitment is frightening to me. For a great deal of my life, commitment has meant entrapment, rather than it’s more positive counterpart of grounding, laying down roots, and working diligently through difficulties on behalf of a better future. As long as everything I bought—clothes, jewelry, even cars—was cheap and disposable, I had no responsibility to it. I was free, and I was unaccountable. And I could always hold on to my petty sense superiority over those I knew who were obsessed with brands and ownership; who I saw as being stifled by debt and the need to keep up appearances. 

I am now coming to accept that upgrading the old, worn-out, and broken things in my life is not a lapse into wholesale greed and shallow materialism, but a statement about who I am, and my worth. Holding onto cheap, ugly things that no longer serve me is not mature, but self-defeating and self-punitive. I am slowly beginning to trust that things will be okay, that the bottom is most likely not going to drop out of my life at a moment’s notice, and that I can make serious, adult commitments. I recognize that spiritual maturity lies not in refusing to acknowledge the existence of the material plane, but accepting it, joyfully allowing quality possessions into my life, and trusting myself to own them without being owned by them. 

And our new living room? It's going to be fabulous!

--Kristen McHenry

1 comment:

Steven Cain said...


I know a couple Military nomads... same thing: everything they own is second hand or disposable... and not for lack of money.

Loved 'Shabby Chic'.