Be it the toy truck, the pasta bowl, the piano, the silver earrings or the old books, we all have stuff because psychologically we need stuff.
Sartre holds that “to have” (along with “to do” and “to be”) is one of the three categories of human existence…
Wired for Stuff
Famous psychologist, Donald Winnicott, tells us that long before we could verbalize the need, we transitioned from merged oneness with mother to “transitional objects,” the favorite blanket, pacifier, stuffed animal, or a piece of cloth that was attributed a special value as a means of making the shift from mother to genuine object relationships.
That said, our relationship with objects, “our stuff” never stops. It unfolds throughout our life; reflecting who we are, where we are, whom we are connected with and what we need to be ourselves.
One of the reasons we find it easier to ask others rather than ourselves, “Do you really need this stuff?” is that the actual value of anything is primarily a function of our investment in it and/or our interaction with it. We give “stuff” value and meaning.
The Psychological Dynamics of Owning “ Stuff”
Theorists propose that the roots of psychological ownership can be found in three human motives: efficacy (competence), self-identity, and ‘having a place.’ Consider your stuff in the light of these:
Whether it is the sand box shovel, the hiking boots, the computer or the car, we need and want ownership of those things that help us accomplish our goals. We value these things because they enhance our sense of competence and accordingly, our sense of self.
- The utility of things is often further valued by their personal and symbolic meaning to us. Well beyond their usefulness, your big brother’s basketball, Grandma’s recipe book or Dad’s tools are valued because they represent and stir the feelings associated with those connections.
- Sometimes the things we cherish are things that are valued purely for their emotional meaning. The drawings of a little son that a soldier carries in his pocket in Iraq, the pressed flowers of a wedding bouquet, the high school football trophy, all emotionally serve to hold connections, maintain memories and affirm identity only for us.
- Sometimes the things we cherish have aesthetic value to us. We treasure such things because we see, hear or feel in them a beauty that is transformative, that lifts us, that makes us different, that expands our love of life.
- Regardless of the use or meaning of “our stuff,” our identity is connected with it in conscious and unconscious ways. While we acquire and let go of certain things throughout life, our possessions in many ways become extensions of self.
“I won’t know myself in someone else’s kitchen.”
“That garden is me.”
“I can’t give up my car – I don’t care if I can’t drive!”
- The identification of things as part of self is certainly reflected in the wish to pass on our precious things to those we love — the wish to love and be loved forever.
- It is also reflected in the “shared ownership” of things with others that become part of our identity and reflect spiritual beliefs, team loyalty, professional status, national pride etc.
Given the purpose and power of self-identification with things, it is understandable that we often feel grief, violation and assault in the aftermath of their loss or destruction.
Most people can tell you with vivid detail of something loved and lost over the course of their lifetime.
Having a Place
- To have a place, be it temporary or permanent — be it the bed in the dorm room, the family’s corner in the hospital waiting room, or the house in the suburbs, is something we want and need. It serves to provide comfort, continuity and sustainability. As some theorists suggest, it reflects our “territorial core.”
- In the face of war, natural and man-made disasters, we have seen the anguish and challenge of coping with “loss of home” on many levels.
How Do We Cope With Loss of “Our Stuff”?
A poignant answer is offered in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her hike of the 2,640 mile Pacific Crest Trail, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.“
In the shadow of her young mother’s death, the dissolution of her marriage, and an increasingly drug-filled life, Strayed takes what little money she has to buy the “stuff” she thinks she will need and takes on the Pacific Crest Trail.
As she slowly hikes with blisters and a backpack the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, she literally and emotionally finds her way. She lightens her load and alters what she needs with the help of connections with other hikers, her memories, a book of poetry and painful determination. At some point she finds that her grueling efforts have so empowered her that the trail and the forest start to feel like home…
In the face of losing what we value and what we love, we suffer and grieve; but all is not lost.
For as long as we believe in our capacity to do, to treasure, to share, to find a place, we find ourselves – we find “Our Stuff.”