Stuff: Good or Bad?

While watching Adam Baker’s TED talk, I was really struck when he talked about accumulating experiences instead of accumulating stuff by going into debt.

I’ve been talking a lot with Nate about our approaches to stuff lately. I place a very, very high value on stuff. This is why about 75% of the things in our apartment are mine. Literally, almost all his stuff is in his one room, and the entire rest of our 1100 sqft apartment is furnished and filled almost entirely with my things. We use some of his kitchen stuff, that’s about it.

A big part of this, of course, is my enormous library (1,300 books and counting!) and the shelves that house it, but mostly I just have a lot of things. Some are expensive (an Alienware laptop), some aren’t (a collection of glow-in-the-dark skulls from cereal boxes).

Baker’s emphasis on experiences doesn’t work for me. My memory isn’t great. I was gaslighted as a child, which taught me not to trust my own memories — and a memory that’s not trusted isn’t going to be reliable. Fibromyalgia brought with it a semi-continuous brain fog, whose effects on my long-term memory is probably best explained through this analogy:

Imagine your memory is a bunch of filing cabinets. You can file memories by date, or by subject, or have ticklers in one set of files that go to another, so that when you look up “June 5, 2007” or “my birthday last year” there’s a list of other files to check for what happened. Kind of like an old-school library catalog.

Fibromyalgia means that my cross-references are written in fading ink, and that many of my subjects have barely-legible tabs and are in the wrong place in their drawer. Often a memory will point to the next one chronologically, so if I want to remember what I had for breakfast (or whether I even ate breakfast), I may have to go back to my first memory of the day and walk forward or backward.

The individual memories are good, it’s the filing system that’s bad.

Objects, for me, are generally reliable reminders of sensory memories. I may not be able to place when I remember something from, but I’ll be able to remember the sensation — the experience. That’s why I collect autographs, for example. Holding the autograph makes me remember the encounter, often with surprising accuracy. Some items’ associated memories are more about what I’m planning to do with them than what I’ve done with them (I have lots of broken things I’ve been meaning to fix, craft supplies, abandoned projects, etc), but I recognize that as a hangup and am working on getting over it and handing things like unused craft supplies and other projects on to folks who’ll actually do ’em.

Some folks say we are the sum of our memories, and by that measure, if I have none of my things, I don’t entirely exist.

Now, some items are less important than others, and some have less than pleasant memories attached to them, and those can go. But the thought of getting rid of everything until all my belongings can fit in a backpack is horrifying. Every time I lose or damage something that is attached to an important memory, it’s incredibly upsetting.

There’s also an element of childish fear, of course — one of the things I was praised for as a child was the care I took of my toys (I ripped half a buckle off my Swiss Miss doll’s shoe when I was tiny, and lost Chief Warrick’s staff from my Star Wars action figure collection, and that’s about it). Add in my impostor complex and you’ve got a recipe for disaster any time I fail to take spectacular care of my things. But the primary issue that comes up whenever I think about getting rid of my stuff is that without it, I won’t be able to remember things as well.

Getting rid of all my stuff would essentially get rid of most of my memories of my past, good as well as bad, and without my memories, who am I?

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9 Responses to Stuff: Good or Bad?

  1. Ellen says:

    I’d say that once again, people are substituting their experiences as reality for all instead of realizing that every person is an individual in ALL WAYS which includes how they remember things or attribute value to “stuff”.

    It is a paradox that we claim to value independence and individuality and in the same breath try to tell every one that their experiences and way of living must all be the same and thus, discount their own experiences in life.

    I think this is another case where the Underpants Rule needs to apply! :)

  2. John says:

    Interesting post, and interesting question you pose.

    From what I’ve been able to verify, my recall of my experiences (at least events from long-long ago) is fairly good. If I remember it, I’m likely to remember it fairly accurately. Stuff helps remind me of it, but in those cases I don’t seem to need the stuff to remember.

    But as you, I’m also one who has collected all sorts of stuff – both in memory as well as in the garage. Particularly books, magazines, comics and such. Media, basically, especially if you include games in that category. Does just having all that stuff help in some way? Does having all (of either kinds) of that stuff also influence whether I have room for yet more stuff in my memory? I dunno.

    Funny, though – I’ve also heard that people are more likely to remember things if they don’t think they’ll be able to go back and look them up again.

    That last question of yours is fascinating. If you still have all your attributes – the things that seem to make you you in the moment – but no longer have the memories of how those attributes have formed. Wouldn’t you still essentially be you? That is, unless “you” is totally based on working from the past, rather than being in the present?

    It’s interesting watching my mom as her Alzheimer’s progresses. Her memory – short term in particular – is getting worse and worse. But so far she is still very much herself. Perhaps sometimes even more so, as she has also come to accept letting people do things for her much easier, so what she is doing is no longer based so much on her trying to take care of others.

    • Ealasaid says:

      Alzheimer’s adds a difficult layer to the philosophical aspect. My grandmother lost the ability to speak very early on in her Alzheimer’s progression, but remained herself for several more years. Without speech, it was hard to tell how her memory was doing, of course, but she did seem to recognize people and places and so on.

      Once she stopped trying to communicate at all, it was impossible to tell whether her memory was functioning at all.

      I’m curious what you mean by “very much herself” — are you talking about her reactions to things?

      (Also, my sympathies. Alzheimer’s his a horrible disease.)

      • John says:

        Thanks. I appreciate it. Sorry to hear that you’ve been though something similar with your Grandmother.

        When I say “very much herself”. Not just her reactions (I think), but for me, even the sense of her. She still likes to watch the same shows (even if she can’t tell you what the name of it is, or details of the plot later). She’ll say things the way she always has, enjoy things she always has, etc., even if she forgets what we sat down to do for a moment, or gets distracted by something else.

        So far, we’re lucky. She seems very happy, and doesn’t show worry about the changes in her memory (or many of the other things she would worry about.) So it’s like she’s just being herself in the moment – it’s rather a childlike quality, I guess. She still has her likes and dislikes, even if the memory of why she has them has faded some.

  3. Alex Summers says:

    So, did I miss something, or are you just collecting experiences in a different manner?

    • Ealasaid says:

      A good point! He contrasts experiences and objects, but I suppose a good synthesis of my point is that for me, experiences are at least partially contained in objects, so the two are inextricable.

  4. kathy says:

    That’s how I interpreted it as well – that your stuff *is* (key to, at least) your accumulation of experiences.

    I take things like that back to the rule of dysfunction… “Is this negatively affecting my life? Is it causing me undo distress (beyond that introduced by hearing how It’s Just Something I Should Not Do), interfering with my job/the health of my important relationships, or damaging my health in some way that’s not worth the trade-off?”…

    If not, oh well. It may be “weird” or “bad” or off-trend, but it’s working for me.

    I feel the same way when I hear some state that decluttering makes everyone – EVERYONE – feel better.

  5. Mazarine says:

    Dear Ealasaid,

    Letting go of things is hard, for me, to deal with, because on the one hand, my partner is getting rid of their stuff, right and left, and doesn’t care if they ever remember anything from childhood, middle school, even high school. They don’t even want to remember their last relationship, which is weird, for me, because I think about that shit ALL THE TIME. Because that’s how I learn, you know? Am I falling back into old patterns? What did I learn from that experience aka how can I use what I learned RIGHT NOW?

    I talked with my 40-something friend Rick who has no pictures of himself before 2000. Because he decided that he’d like to cut his childhood out completely, because it was too abusive. He said he hasn’t seen or spoken with his family since he was 18, his family home was razed for condos, his parents moved to another state, and now his childhood feels like a fairytale he can barely recall.

    For me, I feel like I have enough stuff, but we live in a small apartment, so it also feels like I have too much stuff, sometimes. Since I’ve moved so much in my life, I have often had to face the choice of, “Have I touched this or looked at this in the last year? If not, out it goes.” It has been painful. I’ve cried sometimes. But other times, it felt freeing, like when I burned all 8-10 of my childhood diaries. I don’t need to remember that day in 1998 when my dad screamed at me. I mean, at this point, life is too short.

    I guess I wonder what you want to remember? I mean, have you ever thought about that? Want to remember the good stuff? Keep the stuff that reminds you of that. Want to forget the bad stuff? Throw out that other stuff. Or sell it, give it away.

    What do you think of that theory? Would that be easier than just keeping it all?


    Ps. there’s always this Erykah Badu song: