A hallmark of spirituality has always been the ability to abandon one’s fixation on material things to pursue a loftier aspiration. But it’s not only the spiritually-inclined who claim to chase a life free from the bondage of material things. Having spent years in graduate classes in philosophy and literature, I can tell you that although spirituality is hardly a consideration in these circles, the emphasis on the life of the mind over the life of the material is clear. It seems that radically different circles agree on at least one thing: the dangers of materialism.
Outside of the walls of churches and academies, the verdict on the evil of material things is hardly disputable. Publicly, most of us contend that the material isn’t important. We champion the idea of love over money and objects. We make statements like, “It’s not about how much money you make; it’s about whether you love what you do.” But secretly, most of us care deeply about material things. We are, after all, humans with an ever-increasing drive to have more.
Still, we continue to claim that we really don’t need much to survive and be happy. We need only shelter, food and love. And, in some cases, perhaps we can allow ourselves the luxury of a quiet room of our own, as Virginia Woolf suggested. I’ve always done my best writing when I’m away at a conference, sitting in an almost-empty hotel room, without the burden of all the things I’ve acquired. Nothing but a suitcase, pen and paper and my thoughts. How romantic!
But then came March 2020. The beginning of a new era.
It would be a hideous understatement to say times have changed. It’s not only times that have changed — we have changed, too. We have become more outwardly focused on possessions. Or, perhaps we’ve simply become more honest about the significance of material things in our lives. Has the quarantine life driven us back to an obsession with material things?
When my husband, son and I locked down in March, we knew that we were lucky to be quarantining in a home with plenty of space, a yard and more than a month’s worth of non-perishable foods. In January, I had seen what was coming and acquired a 60-gallon water tank to keep in our garage — just in case. After keeping a watchful eye on Italy, I went to Costco and stocked up on necessities for the next few months. I’m a pessimist at heart, and this time it paid off. I purchased toys, books and puzzles — as many material things as I could think of to stave off the boredom that would undoubtedly accompany an indefinite quarantine in a world that seemed to grow darker each day.
The irony is that only weeks before, my family had committed to downsize, to shed our excess of material goods. We spent weeks giving things away to people in need. It felt good to be free of so much. But suddenly, it was the excess of things that made us feel safe. In a time of crisis, we clung to our material things.
We thought we had enough, especially when others had so much less. But in April, we looked around and decided that we should redo the exterior of our house since we were spending so much time there. We decided that we needed new patio furniture since our backyard was our new world. We realized that we needed to order some new Lego sets for our son to make him feel less anxious about what felt like the end of the world. We unabashedly increased our dependence on material things.
And you know what? Despite the accompanying guilt of having the ability to make those purchases when others don’t, it made us feel better. It made us feel safe.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have talked about how this moment of crisis has forced us to be introspective, to think about what really matters. The insistence that the pandemic has allowed us to spend more time with our families and is, therefore, not all that bad plays on repeat like a broken record. And, sure, maybe those things are true for many people. But what has not been addressed is the significance of material things in this cultural moment. Things have not become less important; they have become more important than ever.
Material things are symbolic beyond their tangible nature. They are shape-shifters, symbolizing power, safety, happiness or memory in different contexts. And in some cases, they can tell us whether we are living or dying.
I can’t help but think of the summer’s peaceful protests of police violence, some of which were tainted by rioting and looting. We’ve all watched videos of people smashing glass storefronts and flooding into stores to retrieve armfuls of goods. And in some cities, we’ve seen protestors enter upscale residential communities with signs that say, “Eat the Rich,” taken from a quote attributed to the French Revolution’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they’ll eat the rich.”
Frenzied attempts to redistribute wealth and material things by force or shame will forever be a part of the hellish American landscape of 2020. Still, riots and looting are nothing new. Material things have always been an important symbol of power, regardless of whether we deem it culturally acceptable to say so. Are you scared? You need things. Are you frustrated? You need things. Depressed? More things.
Are you scared? You need things. Are you frustrated? You need things. Depressed? More things.
For many, the pandemic has signaled a loss of livelihood. Without jobs, people cannot buy food or pay rents and mortgages, let alone purchase material things to distract from the pain of their reality. Jobs make possible the acquisition of things like homes, clothing and other necessities. Things matter. They matter very much, especially to those who can no longer afford them.
But despite the countless and varied ways in which material things take on meaning, perhaps their capacity to create and hold memories is most palpable right now. Some might say that things are always about memory, and I think about that idea more now — when we are surrounded by so much death or fear of death — than ever before.
In “Summer Hours,” a 2008 French film, the aging matriarch of a French family contemplates what will happen to her material belongings (which include paintings that Paris’s Musee d’Orsay had tried to acquire) when she dies. In one scene, she sits in a dark room, contemplating her mortality, after having just hosted all her children and their families. The matriarch tells her maid why she is not making the proper arrangements to deal with her things. She suggests that already, her children bear too much responsibility for family memories and that all of her material things would make navigating the world in the wake of her loss even more difficult, given that they carry these memories.
The idea that we should relinquish our rights to material things may sound like a noble one. But I’m not sure it always plays out like this in the real world. Often, after a loved one dies (or even after a divorce), the subsequent fighting over the material objects is not so much about the things themselves but about what they represent, about the memories.
We fight for the possibility of being able to touch something that contains memory within it or can create and hold memories to be accessed in the future, when we most need to be sustained. Perhaps in moments of crisis or uncertainty, we are afraid, afraid that when our hands cannot close around an object, when our fingers cannot trace its lines, angles or curves, we will have lost the ability to remember both a past and a future.
I don’t mean to be an apologist for materialism. I hated hearing my parents talk about what should happen to their belongings upon their deaths. I don’t want to replace the sound of my mother’s laughter with one of her beautiful Depression-era glasses, so meticulously collected over the years. Yet the truth is that if I can’t hear that laugh, I want to hold the glass in my hand because it might bring just a glimmer of her back to me. These are glasses from family dinners around a big table, where we sat, year after year, laughing together. I imagine that these glasses carry the memories of my mother — especially those that will rise to the surface when, one day in the darkest of futures, she is no longer with us. My father died last year. It never occurred to me to want any of his military medals when he was alive. But now that he’s gone, all I want is to have one of them. I want to keep it in my nightstand and look at it when I miss him, which is all the time. I want to hold it in the absence of holding him.
Yes, I admit that I want things. I want meaning and memory, which cannot always be separated from material things. But I also want to feel safe. The pandemic has cut us off from so much the world has to offer. Zoom meet-ups don’t feel as meaningful as sharing a coffee or a glass of wine at a café with a friend. And holidays spent virtually with family are downright sad. So maybe it’s okay that we feel drawn to material things right now. Maybe we just need to have a moment where we can touch something tangible and real. Maybe it’s a poor substitute for real and vibrant human connections, but it’s what we have for now. Because the truth is that new patio furniture might make me feel better for a little while, but at a certain point, it’s going to be useless without friends and family to share it.
I want meaning and memory, which cannot always be separated from material things.
There’s nothing shameful about connecting to material things right now. Perhaps we can even discover meaning within them that we may have otherwise missed. In August, for example, my husband, son and I left Los Angeles to work in Vancouver, Canada, for six months. We were happy to get out of Los Angeles for a while, and during the first couple of months in our rented apartment, we said to each other at least a dozen times, “Isn’t this great? See? We don’t need all of our things! We were right after all.” And it felt that way for a while — like we were free once again from the burden of material objects. But over the past few weeks, I confess that I have really been missing my things. I feel sad when I think about my Staub Dutch oven — the one in which I always make soup — sitting unused in my kitchen. I long for my cast-iron skillet so I can make salmon the way my son likes it (I feel like a good mother when he raves about my brown butter salmon). I miss my unique coffee maker, around which so many of my daily rituals revolve. I miss my endless shelves of books, all of which speak to me in meaningful ways. I long to step on Lego bricks scattered around the floor and say loudly to my son, “We have too much stuff!” And I can’t stop thinking about that patio furniture. These aren’t just things — they carry memories of safety and security, as well as hopes for a more stable future. That is comfort we need now more than ever.
So as much as we’d like to say that material things don’t matter, 2020 has shown us that they do. They matter to those looking for a sense of stability and the experience of living a normal life, and they matter even more to those who have lost their jobs and who don’t have the luxury of saying that material things aren’t the most important thing in life. So, yes, let’s focus on what really matters. And maybe, just maybe, materialism isn’t always a dangerous thing. Maybe, in this year, taking solace in the memories our objects hold is exactly what we need.
Monica Osborne is a scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”