(A mostly tongue-in-cheek rant about Stuff.)
The silver BMW had been darting in and out of traffic, overtaking from the right, tail-gating. Without any warning, it cut in front of me. I jammed on my brakes to avoid ramming into it. That’s when I noticed the bumper sticker. Silver on black, it proclaimed: The One Who Dies with The Most Toys Wins.
That day the driver of the BMW seemed determined to prove his point. Heart racing, I pulled onto the shoulder and took deep breaths to calm myself. Then I drove home.
When I walked through my front door, I was struck by the sheer volume of Stuff I’ve accumulated. Furniture, rugs, a music system, CDs, paintings, plants, enough books to wallpaper a small city, sculpture, a computer, a TV, a DVD player, phones, both cellular and portable, a fax machine-I have it all. Solid, taking-up-space-in-my-home Stuff.
And yet. I did not set out to acquire stuff. For the first thirty-odd (sometimes very odd) years of my life, I owned nothing that wasn’t portable-that I wasn’t able to give away at a moment’s notice. When did this tide of stuff overtake me?
I have hippie friends who live in an un-insulated barn deep in the forests of Central British Columbia. They heat their house with a woodstove, haul water from a well and steal electricity by stringing illegal lines to the nearest power pole. They own more stuff than I do. Their stuff tends to be rattier and more idiosyncratic than mine but small hillocks of it grow around their homestead. Old generators, old cars for parts, old tires: their stuff rusts in magnificent piles of twisted metal, a twentieth century version of Stonehenge.
The anthem of stuff rings throughout the land and there is no escape. We are the generation that believes in salvation through stuff.
Those of us who are committed to social causes collect politically correct stuff: blue plastic recycling bins, self-improvement projects, altruism. Save The Whales, The Rainforest, The Homeless, The Differently Abled.
Sports fans collect sports stuff. Here in Canada, it’s team sweaters and football scores, Hockey Night in Canada and Wayne Gretsky memorabilia.
Teens are the great omnivores of our culture. They buy more stuff than any other age group, and much of the stuff they own looks like the stuff their friends own. Some of them collect neo-gothic clothing, body piercings and Nietzsche; others collect video games and iPods.
Religious folks collect religious stuff: crucifixes and Bibles, the Koran, the Torah; moral certitude, church on holy days, spiritual perfection and Jesus Saves.
In this great accumulation of stuff we seek nothing less than salvation. It’s another form of yearning for safety. Great Mother save me from the dinosaurs! cries CroMagnon man as he carves himself a brand-new club. Isis save me from this plague of locusts and I will build a temple in your honor. Safe in the arms of Jesus, Hallelujah! sings the church choir. And Allah be praised, the Stealth bombers missed my herd of camels.
Stuff gives us the illusion of safety.
Those Trojans holed up in their walled city just wanted to be safe when they accepted the Greeks’ gift of a wooden horse. Hey! (I imagine Nestor saying to Hector;) if they’re giving us stuff it’s gotta mean they wanna be friends. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth I say. Besides, this siege they’ve laid on us has left us woefully short of-stuff.
History is full of wars waged over the issues of stuff and safety. Kill the Jews and make the world safe for Aryans. And collect their gold teeth while you’re at it; more stuff to shore up the Reich. Kill the Taliban, keep the Homeland Secure.
Real estate and ideology are both stuff.
Some stuff doesn’t look like stuff. It exists in the realm of abstract thought. Truth, Freedom, the Pursuit of Happiness-beliefs can be stuff too. They give us something to hold onto, the psychic equivalent of Linus’s security blanket.
If I take vitamin C every day I’ll be immune from colds and maybe other things, like thieves breaking into my house or my kid running away from home. If I vote Republican (or Democrat) I am no longer alone in the world. Voting Republican makes me a Good Person. And bad things don’t happen to good people.
Of course, you and I are sophisticated enough to spot the logical fallacy. We’re not superstitious. We know our stuff can’t protect us from life. Yet we insure our stuff against earthquakes and fire, theft and vandalism. We even insure our lives, so that when we die, our children will have stuff. We can’t control the fact that death claims us, but we can collect enough stuff to cushion the blow.
Stuff is about control as well as safety: two great illusions, one all-purpose solution.
We’re told it’s our patriotic duty to buy stuff to keep our economy healthy. People from Third World countries (I should know–I was born and raised in India!) who don’t have as much stuff as we do respond to the ads multinational corporations plaster on the billboards of every city and town, from Mumbai to Mombasa, from Siberia to Timbuctoo. Then those same people sail across the ocean in leaky boats so they can have stuff too. Canadian stuff-which is often American stuff in bilingual packaging-like designer jeans and hundred-dollar shoes.
This makes us mad. We’ve worked hard for our stuff and we’re not about to be taken down by hordes of illegal migrants grabbing for a share of it. We protect our stuff by locking up those wannabe migrants and shipping them back to the stuffless abyss from whence they’ve sprung.
In the end, we’ll die with more stuff than they’ll see in their lifetimes. That means we win. Right?