“The things you own end up owning you.” – Chuck Palahniuk, “Fight Club”
I used to teach a unit of freshman composition in which I showed part of the movie “Fight Club.” Obviously I did not show the entire movie. College freshmen are adults (sorry, Mom and Dad; I know it’s hard to hear) but I still feel a responsibility not to pile a lot of violence on them in the name of general education. I would teach it in a film class, but not in freshman comp. Freshman year is hard enough.
I taught an entire themed course on “Personal Identity.” I still believe there is no better course theme for traditional college freshmen, who are engaged in one of the great personal identity milestones of their lives, for many of them the first, rootless opportunity they will have to reinvent themselves.
Sometimes they do this with a credit card.
One of the units I taught in this course was on “Identity and Consumerism,” in other words, how we project our identities through the things we buy. And there is no better example of this impulse than the “Fight Club” narrator’s obsessive relationship with the Ikea catalog. In fact, I usually used a quote from “Fight Club” as the header for the unit essay assignment: “I’d flip through catalogs” the narrator says, “and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’”
I won’t lie. I’d like to be the kind of person who does not engage in this sort of behavior, but I am not. Therefore, like all academics and a good many artists, I decided at some point that “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” was a false dichotomy that failed to acknowledge a middle ground called “analyze the crap out of ‘em.” (Well, if you are a hipster, a millennial, or a coffee house musician, there’s a middle ground that involves only joining ‘em ironically, but I don’t look good in a knit beanie, so that’s not an option for me.)
I like stuff.
Worse, I like quirky, identity-defining, I-had-to-shop-the-world-over-to-find-this stuff.
I know what kind of dining set defines me as a person, and it has drop leaves, red velvet padded captain’s chairs, carved claw feet, and a mother-of-pearl-accented, Ouija-board inlay on the otherwise solid walnut tabletop.
They do not carry it at Ikea, and even if they did, I’m certain I could not put it together.
Also, I don’t have a proper dining room in my house, and the table I have in mind would not fit in my breakfast nook.
I have had occasion, over the past few months, to think about our tendency to accumulate objects. I have been trying to go through the detritus of my own house in the wake of my divorce, and I have been trying to help my family sort out the belongings of my Aunt Edie and Uncle Carl, who both passed away last year.
I’m very tired of stuff.
Unfortunately, I have plenty of stuff, and I have no doubt that some of it contributed valiantly to the economy, but much of it was made in sweatshops or imported from authoritarian regimes or contributed in some way to the climate-change crisis, and I can no longer tell the difference.
Even the things that “spark joy,” as Marie Kondo so succinctly puts it, are suspicious in some ways. I can’t say for certain that the run-off from crafting my oil lamp or my pasta bowls at Pigeon Forge Pottery was entirely safe for the ducks in the Little Pigeon River. I’m almost certain that I did not pay enough for my black yoga pants to ensure that they weren’t made in a sweatshop. And I have “Star Wars” action figures from 1984, whose manufacture almost certainly would not live up to today’s environmental or humanitarian standards.
I don’t think I’m the first person to begin suffering some compassion fatigue when it comes to such choices.
And those are just things that genuinely “spark joy.” I’m also drowning in meaningless clutter: cooking utensils that barely do the job they were bought for, let alone anything else, practical shoes that I suppose I am saving for the day I become someone who doesn’t hate practical shoes, fondue pots, florist vases, baseball cards, and an entire collection of quirky cookie tins, jam jars, and mustard pots that prove to be useful just often enough to justify their continued accrual.
I know this continued acquisition and stashing is unhealthy and quite possibly immoral. We are meant to live “like the lilies of the field.”
I also know that my life would be somehow poorer for the loss of my much-used ergonomic maple lap desk or my mezzaluna cutting board. These are things I am thankful for whenever I pick them up. They are thoughtfully designed, well-crafted, and useful.
I recall that, during a similar freshman composition class many years ago, in a unit on work-life balance, I was teaching an essay, an expose of sorts, about Disney World when one of my freshmen nearly broke down crying in class.
“Why do they want us to hate all the things we love? Is that what being an adult is?!” she wailed.
I was not prepared for that response.
Just in case you don’t know any teachers, let me explain to you that, whether you teach preschool, middle school, or college, whether you have done it for six months or 16 years, teaching is an endless study in responding to things you were not prepared for. No matter how well you know the material, the students, and the daily preparation, you will be caught off guard.
I had no response but to reply off the cuff, and as gently as I could.
“No one wants that, sweetheart. I certainly don’t. I just want you to really know the things you love, the dark and the light. I guess I think if you don’t, you can’t make good choices. There will be something to forgive in everything and everyone you ever love. You will have to choose for yourself what’s worth keeping and what’s worth fighting to fix and what’s just weighing you down.”
And in hindsight, I guess that applies to almost everything. Maybe THAT is what being an adult is.
That student kept in touch with me for years, by the way.
She wrote me when she passed the Kentucky Bar Exam.
I will accept neither credit nor blame for that.
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