Writer Amy Gutman unpacks our attachment to stuff.
Earlier this year, I cleared out a storage locker packed with the overflow of almost two adult decades. It was an anxious undertaking. Would my books have gathered mold? Would my clothing be moth-infested? Would my law school bicycle even be functional? And in fact, there were some disheartening moments—a silk dress passed down from my grandmother that had simply disintegrated. But the main reaction as I unpacked: What a bunch of junk.
It got me to thinking about why I’d stashed all this stuff in the first place—and I had plenty of time to think as I hauled mountains of papers and ancient electronics off to the town dump. Over the decades, I’d paid well over $10,000—$10,000!—to stockpile these items, an amount far exceeding their value. How had I let this happen?
I remember shockingly little of what I learned in law school, but one article from my Property class stayed with me over the years, in particular its quirky yet profound observation that we’d be more distressed to return home and find our living room gone than to learn our home’s value had dropped a few percentage points. This is because certain possessions are “self-constitutive.” Meaning: They are intimately bound up with our sense of who we are. “A person cannot be fully a person without a sense of continuity of self over time,” wrote University of Michigan law professor Margaret Jane Radin. In order to lead a normal life, there must be some continuity in relating to “things.”
Perhaps holding close to my belongings has been a compensation of sorts, a way of making up for the absence of other enduring ties. Single, no kids, I’ve travelled light. (At least, if you don’t count the storage.) Along with utility bills from the 1980s and a broken coffee maker, my storage unit also sheltered items rich with personal meaning. The manuscripts of my two novels. A collection of books about the Deep South dating from my newspaper reporting years. A purple-and-pink neon wall clock bestowed by a once-devoted boyfriend.
But while these things mattered, and I was glad to have them, at the same time, they also evoked a certain uneasiness. Buddhist teachings tell us that attachment is the source of all suffering. Everything we love and cherish will eventually be lost; that’s just how things are. This is why we’re urged to ground our happiness in things beyond change and why Buddhists vow to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community), which are together referred to as the “Triple Jewel.”
The concept of refuge struck a chord with me. We live in an era of lost homes and lost jobs, of vertiginous stock market swings and careening retirement plans. The ambient surround of loss and fear can make us acutely sensitive to the costs of letting go—so much so that we may lose sight of the costs of holding on.
In such uncertain times, it seems wise to think carefully about where we seek refuge, about how we plan to meet our deepest needs for security and meaning. We might start with a question that Radin asks: What connections will enable us to flourish?
As I was thinking about all this, I had a yen to re-read the Radin piece that had made such a strong impression more than two decades before. This was precisely the sort of need I’d anticipated in saving my law school files, and even as I reflected on the merits of letting go, I congratulated my foresight. I even knew just where the box was. But when I filed through its contents, Radin’s article was nowhere to be found. To be sure, I had plenty else from that long-ago class—lecture notes, even the syllabus. The only thing I couldn’t find was the one thing I needed.
It finally occurred to me that Radin was a real person in possession of an email address and that this information would be available on her law school’s website. She got back to me within an hour, identifying the book where the essay appeared. For less than ten bucks, it was on my Kindle, then a quick search, and there it was: the sofa reference I’d been seeking.
I couldn’t help but note that an email had accomplished what more than $10,000 in storage had not.
Then I went back to loading my car for another trip to the dump.
A version of this article was published previously by Salon.com.