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Freedom From the Tyranny of Things

Rachel Alexander Feb. 20, 2019

{5 minutes to read} The other night, I saw a movie called Minimalism, and as I sorted through the thousands of unnecessary items in my life, I tuned in to watch. The movie concluded with this surprisingly profound quote: “Love people. Use things.” The idea is that when those words get turned around, and we use people and love things, something is messed up — and it’s us.

In divorce, things can take on all kinds of meaning. Power, security, control, and so forth. One of the questions the movie raised is: “What does having stuff mean to you?”

  • What does a particular item/object mean?

  • What does driving a particular car do for you? Say about you?

  • Does a particular item bring actual enjoyment or does the double G* or repeated LV** act as a badge of success or shield from criticism?

  • What is the “thing under the thing” that we’re chasing?

In divorce, where everything can take on an inflated meaning, highly contentious couples often struggle most with dividing physical property (as in who gets the sofa, desk, lamp, pictures). Some of the attaching to things is a visceral holding on to whatever can be gripped while the immaterial is slipping away, lost, or transformed into something else.

Things and their absence can carry a sense of deprivation or victimization. No one hoards because they feel so relaxed, secure, and at ease in the world. Quite the contrary — they amass items in a skewed attempt to gather everything they could need to protect against the uncertainties of living and the unbearable threat of being powerless to confront unmet needs. Stockpiling — an extreme example of acting out important needs and fears through stuff — misses the point of what’s actually needed. What is truly needed is deeper, more time-consuming, and more difficult — but almost invariably has nothing to do with owning more plastic goods from China. If things actually provided fulfillment, then terrific; we’d all strive towards more and reach nirvana through materialism. The unfortunate thing is we have a lot of stuff, and rather than satisfaction, we have dust mites.

I think it’s safe to say that happiness, contentment, belonging, and intimacy are never manifested through ownership of objects alone.

Things of all sorts can bring delight — a piece of art, a cozy sweater — and when their meaning remains close to what they are and the function they serve, we have more mastery and are more anchored to reality.

Most important is protecting the ordinariness of things — their utility — when it comes to providing for children. Mistreatment of things perverts their meaning and can corrupt children’s relationship with stuff deeply — their understanding can turn things into representations of their own safety and worth. Objects can become deified, replacing values.

As children lack power and are dependent upon being provided for, things can easily become imbued with spurious importance. As children develop, they will be informed by and likely follow the example of your relationship with things. What things does your child need to feel secure, appropriately clothed, prepared for a particular environment? Is this different than what she needs to reflect the image you want to portray, or to reveal the limits of her other parent?

Minimalism, which I recommend, shows what life could be if stuff is returned to its ordinary meaning; a handbag is really just a carryall; a car just a vehicle to transport you. If instead of using our life energy to support a lifestyle or social expectation that was thrust upon us or that dictated our unconscious choices, what if we shape our material needs in accordance with our life force and life choices? How freeing that could be! What if instead of having to accept a particular job in order to pay your mortgage, you chose a house with a mortgage that you could afford while doing whatever work gives you joy?

I think it comes back to the quote: “Love people. Use things.” This way, in this order. Relationships are to be cherished; things are to be in service of life.

* Gucci

** Louis Vuitton