Matthew Lickona 11 a.m., Oct. 18
- Community Blog
Things. They’re everywhere. They surround us, and they all belong to someone else. Someone owns almost every thing we see; it’s somebody’s thing. A car, a house, an office building, a tree, a garden, it’s someone’s. And that’s not counting the innumerable things we don’t see, things inside the bigger things—things in companies and office buildings, things in cars, and all the things inside people’s houses and garages: tools, toys, clothes, furniture, appliances, books, maps, letters, food … things.
Collectively, what do all our things say about us as a society, and, individually, what do our possessions say about each one of us specifically? Anything good? Maybe our things only reflect poorly on us. Perhaps they say nothing at all, and if they do, maybe no one cares.
I sometimes wonder what my possessions will say about me after I’ve died. What will they represent, to anyone who cares, about the totality of me? I probably won’t know that I am about to die, so I won’t be able to properly arrange my things in the way that I want them to be found and pondered: the things I’ve written, the book I’m presently reading, or the channel my TV happens to be on at my demise; will my various odds and ends, my music collection, and my selections of displayed art be considered by those I love? Will my things speak of my benevolence and the cultured ideal that I’ve always strived for? I doubt it. My imagined ideal is something I’ve always managed to fall short of, and, to be perfectly frank, the flawless example of cultivated elegance and pseudo-aristocracy that exists in my mind matters to only one person in the entire world—me and me alone. Alas, the person I least want to impress.
Maybe my things will objectively tell the truth of the way I lived my life. Yes, he could be selfish and superficial. He preferred to be alone with his beloved thoughts; he liked action figures, comic books, and punk rock music a little too much: obviously he refused to grow up and take responsibility for himself.
And what about the things I don’t want anyone to find? The things I’ve written but never intended for anyone to read, my small porn collection (believe me, ladies, all men have one, even if they claim they don’t) or my embarrassing over-the-counter medications hidden away in the bathroom.
Or am I simply deluding myself? After I die will my clothes remain flat and meaningless without me to fill them out and animate them? Will all the treasures I’ve collected throughout my life remain unloved and ignored? Perhaps after I die, my belongings will mean absolutely nothing to anyone. Maybe no one will care about my things and the roles of importance or triviality each one of them played in my life. The fact that they were owned by me is purely incidental. No one will care about anything but my things’ immediate resale value or their impassive usefulness in new owners’ lives. Or maybe their destiny will be something even worse, perhaps their heartbreaking demise will be their being tossed onto the trash heap.
The older I get, I sometimes think about my possessions in the perspective of my mortality. I have six leather belts, all with silver studs. I have some decorative belt buckles to go with them: a Misfits Crimson Ghost buckle, a black heart with crossbones buckle, and half a dozen plain stainless steel rectangular buckles. They all look cool, but I never tuck in my shirts, so for practical purposes, I usually just snap a stainless steel roller buckle on the belt I’m wearing. The roller buckles are fast and easy to operate, whereas the decorative buckles involve a lot of maneuvering and adjusting and sometimes they poke me uncomfortably in the stomach if I’m sitting in a chair and then I bend down to pick something up off the floor—which, really, doesn’t happen often, but still! Anyway, I bought six roller buckles for each of my belts. As I snapped a roller buckle onto each of my belts, I realized that these are the last six roller buckles I will ever purchase in the remainder of my life. I’m not getting any younger, and the chances that I’ll need another roller buckle on top of the six I already own are pretty slim. My belts, my buckles, all my things….
And what about our things that exist more as thoughts and memories, things like books, movies, music, and souvenirs that remind us of vacations and people we love?
When I was a teenager, I read Mark Vonnegut’s book, The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity. I was fascinated by the author’s decent into lunacy, and I secretly feared it would happen to me … and, I suppose, to a certain extent, it eventually did. But the older I got the less appealing the book became. I read it a few more times in my twenties, once in my thirties, and just skimmed it in my forties. People’s tastes change, and over the years the book seemed more and more bombastic and self-serving. A few years ago, when my ex-wife, April, and I were each packing our belongings to once and for all go our separate ways, I placed several of my books in a cardboard box and donated them to the local second hand bookstore. My copy of The Eden Express was one of them. And as it rested there in the box of books I carried into the store, I knew that I would never again read it in my life. This realization made me feel regretful and intellectually placed me one step closer to Death …
… Death. Overall, humanity fears it, but perhaps only because it doesn’t understand it, not really. We don’t know, metaphysically, what happens, if anything, to us after our bodies die.
My life’s early task of gathering and then categorizing my likes and dislikes is over. That aspect of my life is now assuredly behind me. My present work is simply to keep my dislikes at bay and to simultaneously shed my likes one by one, to whittle the enormous collection of my life’s rewards down to a lean and manageable ration of esoteric luxuries that should and ultimately, whether I like it or not, will transcend physical worth.
One morning as I sat on the toilet (a basic and necessary function my grandmother, Dottie, euphemistically referred to as “doing one’s duty”) while contrastingly reading a magazine about luxury beach homes, it occurred to me that, yes, we are intelligent beings with free will, but to another degree we’re still just complex carbon based organisms. Maybe to higher beings somewhere else in the universe, we could be little more than clever animals, animals with innate needs and fundamental compulsions; intelligent animals who insist on surrounding ourselves with desirable objects that we use to achieve status, immediate gratification, and a sense of self-worth. But ultimately all of our things are really nothing more than that … they are just things, and after a life is lived and all is said and done, our things left behind in a distant reality might even develop into a source of shame or regret for us in the afterlife … if one exists.