The Stuff of Our Lives
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Photo by Robert Francis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The A&E television show Hoarders is hugely popular for so many reasons. Maybe we see our inner hoarder in their characters, or just want to be shocked at the sight of extreme stuff. But when writer Amy Gutman decided to declutter her storage space, she developed a fascinating idea about why our stuff is so important to us.
For decades, she paid nearly ten thousand dollars for a storage unit to avoid letting go of her things, and recently came to see much of it as worthless. In trying to comprehend how she could have kept these things for so long, she suggests that for some people our stuff is tied to our character, our being. Gutman pulls from her memory banks (but not her vast repository of stuff), Margaret Jane Radin’s paper on Property and Personhood:
"Most people possess certain objects they feel are almost part of themselves. These objects are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world. They may be as different as people are different, but some common examples might be a wedding ring, a portrait, an heirloom, or a house.
One may gauge the strength or significance of someone’s relationship with an object by the kind of pain that would be occasioned by its loss. On this view, an object is closely related to one’s personhood if its loss causes pain that cannot be relieved by the object’s replacement. If so, that particular object is bound up with the holder. For instance, if a wedding ring is stole from a jeweler, insurance proceeds can reimburse the jeweler, but if a wedding ring is stolen from a loving wearer, the price of a replacement will not restore the status quo — perhaps no amount of money can do so.”
Clearly there is no end to what kinds of objects can be imbued with this kind of meaning. One question that has not only legal but philosophical implications is how much of personhood is the culmination of experiences. And maybe those experiences are deeply tied to property, where some may find the necessity and pain of attachment. The one thing I wished Gutman had revealed in the article was how she released her attachment to her stuff.
Attachment and Destruction
Goran Vrcel, guest contributor
At the age of ten, I stood at the edge of the hill, gazing into the distant flames that waved above the forested mountains. At that moment I knew that kids my age had lost their homes, their innocence, their land. I quickly learned what nationalism, pride, and hate meant in a falling nation of Yugoslavia.
Being Serbian, I never learned to hate the Croats, as many did. I rather felt sympathy as a Croatian town waved goodbye to us in flames. In 1995, Croatia successfully executed their plans. Ethnic cleansing. We left our homeland, my heaven on earth.
But the war taught me that no violence is solved through violence itself. The violent tactics varied, but the pain remained the same for both sides. The war between Serbs and the Croats has greatly altered my views on attachment to ideas, beliefs, and social standards. How can a loving father nurture his kids, and then be sent out to kill others? How can a child, forced to become aware of this by simple observations or intuition, accept his or her father in the aftermath?
A child remembers well, but at the same time, one can unconsciously forgive, become persuaded by the dominance of another, or one can easily conceal those lingering memories buried deep within for prolonged periods of time.
But the real question is: how is it that some people are capable of such destruction, yet, at the same time, they are competent of expressing love and compassion towards their family members and or society?
I listened to a group of soldiers recapturing the memories of their “victorious” battle. One described the time when he forced an elderly woman to lift her skirt up so that he could shoot her, another pulled the dentures out of a dead peasant’s mouth, and another told a story of a man beheading a villager with a chainsaw. All of these men returned home to their loving families.
Not long after the flames had descended into the ashes, my 93 year-old great-grandmother said to us, “You children do not know that you are alive.” This was the beginning of my awakening, even though, at the time, I had no knowledge of what awakening meant. But some sort of insight penetrated through to the core of my being.
Years later, I started to believe that attachment to people, ideas, beliefs, and the ways of our society is what eventually might alienate us from others, and construct a possible pathway to ignorance. These solders were not attached to the opposing society, therefore, it became easy for them to terminate the other side in the most atrocious way possible. When a sense of self is defined through pride and superiority, then it becomes work of an ego, which can lead to delusion and possible destruction.
Since we live in a more diverse world, we must learn the meaning of the word “us” as opposed to us or them, or me and him/her. It is crucial that we become aware not only of our differences, but of our similarities as human beings. Awareness and action is the key. So how do I forgive? Through educating others by bringing awareness and observing their progress.
Mr. Vrcel currently works as a photographer and designer living in Schererville, Indiana. All photos in this essay by Goran Vrcel and used with his permission.
He submitted this essay through our First Person Outreach page. Submit yours too.