I’m 28 years old and yes, I still sleep with my favourite childhood stuffed animal. By no means do I consider myself a materialist – I still wear some of my old highschool threads from many moons ago (yay for me, they still fit!) and use a hairdryer I inherited from the 1970s (hey if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right?!) – but, for all of us, there are certain worldly possessions that take on deeper meanings than their tangible properties. So is the case with my nighttime companion; we have after all been through a lot together.
He’s comforted me when I was down in the dumps and I’ve stitched him back together more than once due to my older brother’s plots to wreak havoc! In fact, I still bring the little guy with me every time I travel. To be perfectly honest, I just don’t sleep the same way without him.
I often joke he’s been the most “consistent” man in my life. While partners have come and gone, this toy has been with me through both my triumphs and struggles, never judging and only offering support throughout this journey we call life. In sum, believe it or not, this feisty rocker turned writer’s most prized possession is a worn (I prefer to think “well-loved”) discoloured misshapen green frog who simply goes by the name of Captain.
First toys, cars, kisses – well first “anythings” in life really – seem to stick with us. Perhaps this is in part due to the “primacy effect” (ie: a trend in learning noted by psychologists in which individuals have a tendency to, when presented with material in a list/series, recall or place significance on the first item), but I also think it has a lot to do with personal identity development/expression as exercised by “choice”. Beyond the people with whom we choose to surround ourselves (ie: you are who you hang with), the possessions we ultimately choose to acquire, too, represent, in part, how we wish to be seen and identified.
Think about it. Unlike a good majority of kids out there, it wasn’t a Barbie doll, a toy truck or perhaps most commonly a stuffed bear that defined me as a child. Instead, it was a frog.
Frogs in their animal form are colourful, slippery and fast and they travel by impressively propelling themselves through the air (ie: jumping). If we came up with human personality equivalents for those traits, we’d get an individual who was “loud” (as in both volume and presence), hard to pin down/fit into a box, witty and highly self-motivated. In other words, even if I couldn’t describe myself in said fashion as a little girl, my childhood stuffed animal choice very much demonstrates that I knew early on I would never be content with blending in with the crowd. How I came to have Captain in my life is equally an illustrative tale, but we’ll leave that one for another time ;)
So where am I going with this disclosure from my personal life anyhow? Well, I merely wanted to set up a dichotomy when it comes to the concept of “materialism”. In other words, when does the accumulation and retention of goods leave the realm of “healthy nostalgia”/”personal expression” and border on the pathological? Allow me to provide you with another example for comparative purposes.
I recently took up a part-time role as the administrator for a business wherein I was replacing an elderly lady who had committed herself to said organization for 30+ years. Now this is no insult to her or her abilities, but what I inherited in terms of office files, supplies and documents can only be described as frighteningly overwhelming. Truly it’s as though she NEVER and I mean NEVER threw out anything in the whole time period she worked there.
I understand it’s one thing to hold onto important membership, financial or construction-related files as you never know when you may need to reference them again in the future. THAT PART I GET. What I CANNOT come to terms with however is why she felt it necessary to hold onto the scrap pieces of waste paper from which you peel off mailing labels, knitting patterns from the 1960s, instruction manuals for DOS discs and typewriters, out-of-date volunteer schedules and mail-order catalogs, burnt out lightbulbs, used plastic food trays, and at least two decade-year-old sugar and other condiment packets that would no doubt cause serious poisoning upon ingestion…that is unless she had an issue when it comes to letting things go.
With shows such as Buried Alive, the above described compulsive behaviour known as “hoarding” has seen a great deal of exposure in recent years. With any “TV land” depiction however, the complexity of this psychological condition is typically only characterized in superficial terms leading the general public to believe that, in Jason Elias’, Behaviour Therapist, point of view, “these people are just slobs or lazy.” In reality, this perception couldn’t be further from the truth.
From an evolutionary stance, the impulse to amass goods can be traced to both our survivalist instincts and believe it or not… our mating practises. As Biologist Tom Waite explains, in the animal kingdom, many species will “hoard” excessive amounts of food in preparation for “survival” over the winter months or long journeys. In reference to the second point, male animals, in particular, also commonly “collect” and display their “various accomplishments” (ie: the carcasses of prey they’ve successfully conquered, among other things) in order to attract desirable female mates for the purposes of prolonging their kin (again a survivalist instinct). In summary, the amassment of food, carcasses and the like – in other words, “hoarding” - is effective in attracting mates (which is directly linked to survival) because it demonstrates that the given animal is strong and smart, but more importantly, a good candidate for “providing” and/or “leading”. Wouldn’t you know it? Humans desire the same traits in their romantic partners!
Let’s return to my administrative predecessor for a moment. One thing I’d specifically like to draw your attention to is her age. Now, obsessive-compulsive behaviours can affect any and all demographics (they commonly run in families), but something to keep in mind when it comes to older folks seemingly affected by this disorder is that many of them likely lived through extremely trying economic times, such as The Great Depression. Why is this important? Well, quite simply, if you experienced having NOTHING, EVERYTHING becomes essential and worth holding onto, especially if you develop a paranoia that circumstances could revert back to how they were.
The next point worth mentioning is that throughout my training with this woman, there was not a single moment where she made small-talk references to a husband, family or children. When someone occupies a space for that long a period of time, they typically have personal mementos visibly on display to complement the room; interestingly, there were NONE. While she may have just been a very private person, another convincing theory is that this career – her work – was literally all she had and the only way she was able to “define”/”express” her identity. Consequently, she took great pride in what she did and again EVERYTHING, including the everyday minutia, became significant and was worth keeping.
Psychologists have noted that hoarding tends to coexist with a “profound inability to make decisions” (Discover Magazine) and may even be linked to other afflictions such as depression, which is recognized as having debilitating effects on an individual’s motivation. Why my predecessor couldn’t throw anything out I’ll never know for certain, but scientists agree that this behaviour in humans is “a natural and adaptive instinct gone amok,” (Discover Magazine) to put it lightly.
As Christmas has just passed and no doubt, in line with the season’s modern day practice, all of you were showered with more and more “stuff” as per the requests on your wish lists, I think it’s important that you ask yourselves the following questions:
1) Why did I want these items?
2) What do these items mean to me?
3) How do these items define me?
4) Could I live without these items?
While I’m not making the insinuation that any of you suffer from the above discussed psychological dilemma, I believe it’s important to understand and assess your desire for material things. While we’re all allow to splurge once and awhile, the psychologically mature/psychologically-balanced can effectively distinguish between their needs and wants as well as the significant and insignificant. In other words, just as the saying goes when it comes to true friends, you should be able count the most important items in your life on one hand.