Where Do We Store The Stuff?

The modern world is profoundly capable of generating stuff. And people have an inherent knack for consuming it. We pride ourselves on making progress, and we commend each other for accumulation. But when we’re finished with it, when the car has ceased to suit our tastes, when the cell phone is rendered obsolete by the smartphone, when the couch springs finally give way, where does it all go?

Goodwill or The Salvation Army or the church yard sale or the homeless shelter downtown benefit temporarily from our jettisoning the objects for which we once pined. In our never-ending quest to obtain we see these donations as benevolence for which we should be recognized. (Perhaps this is why we seek the tax write-offs for them?) We give away furniture, clothing, cars (boats too) to what we call worthwhile charities, although whether they are worthwhile or not is really not the point. This is how we appease our appetite for stuff.

But even those who benefit from our gracious giving will tire of their treasures (our trash). Either that or the stuff will completely fall apart and thus be rendered useless to anyone. When this happens, when the cars have been as pulled apart as they can be in scrap yards, when the couch only vaguely resembles its former shape, after the clothes can no longer be torn apart for rags,

where does it all go?

No Such Thing As No Strings Attached

Benevolence is a cultivated quality. We all like to think of ourselves as generous and supportive. We like to think we go beyond the necessary, doing whatever it takes to accomplish what life and other people throw our way. We convince ourselves that we live unconditionally, that we love unconditionally. But deep down, lurking in the dark and musty corners of who we really are, dwell the provisos, the conditions for our approval and our acceptance.

We don’t generally entertain these stipulations; we prefer for other people to remain ignorant of their existence. In fact, we disown them altogether if ever accused of harboring them in the first place. But there they are, inescapable and passive-aggressively unwavering. We use these conditions for access to ourselves; we engage them at our own discretion. We transpose them onto those surrounding us for better or for worse. They become an element of control or manipulation. We don’t like them, but we tolerate them.

Some of us rebel against them. We are able to see when they surreptitiously take control of our conversations, and though we may at times be in agreement with them, we stifle them for the sake of the unconditional. Others of us are in denial regarding their existence. We cry absolute when we really mean quid pro quo. Those of us who indulge these provisos will inevitably end up feeling nasty and tainted when all is said and done. But that is their magic, not that we have allowed them to rear themselves, but that we still will not give them a name.

So what are the conditions of unconditional? When we say that we are giving or loving or supporting unconditionally, do we always expect to get something in return? How much of this life is give, and how much of it is take?

If I’m Me, Then Who Are You?

In general, we like to sing the praises of individuality. Let each be his own, or something similar. We applaud the efforts of those who seek to distinguish themselves from the masses, and we designate whole months of the year to celebrate diversity and revel in the distinct attributes every person brings to the cultural table.

But to what extent do we actually believe in the positivity of the differences we like to praise? Do we celebrate individuality only so long as someone else is performing it? Is our championing of individual self-expression conditional, limited to those who couldn’t conform if their lives depended on it? And if we are subconsciously reinforcing this double-standard, what does this do to an adolescent’s capacity for self-expression?

Shopping malls are full of innumerable incarnations of the same teenager. This teenager wears skinny jeans and retro sneakers. He has borrowed a hairstyle from a cleverly marketed pop culture pawn, and he bears the look of befuddled indifference popularized by teenagers long ago. This teenager bumps into himself at every corner and refuses to say “excuse me” for fear of damaging his borrowed ego.

When two embodiments of this teen converse, those of us cognizant of what’s happening expect some sort of metaphysical breakdown of the archetype. We expect, perhaps naively, that the mask will dissolve, and what will be left behind is the true individual. And that would be ok. It is, in fact, what we want. Right?

What happens in reality is that the clones embrace their identically constructed selves and march on together, still believing they are doing something unique, still presenting themselves as the individuals they think they are. And still believing this is how it’s supposed to be.

I wonder where they got that idea.

A Sinking Ship

Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “I am a rock/ I am an island.” But they were speaking figuratively, not literally. It seems, however, that we have adopted this mentality in its purest form.

This self-important, self-perpetuating idealism is evident in all places, in all facets of our daily lives. Take the morning commute, for example. How many times have you, bleary-eyed and coffee-deficient, been cut off on the freeway by someone who didn’t use a blinker (probably because driving and talking on the cell phone are not conducive to flipping the turn signal lever)? When you honk your horn, does that person acknowledge that they’ve committed a freeway faux paux? Or do they look at you as though you’re the one who’s done something wrong? Of course you were wrong. Because what you have to do could not possibly be as important as what that person has to do. Right?

It happens in grocery stores too. There was once a time when general civilities were exchanged between the shopper and the cashier (How is the weather? Have you been busy here today? I’m just ready to get home.). Now, however, we can’t be bothered to put down our cell phones to converse. When the cashier asks if we want paper or plastic, we just wave frantically and hope she or he recognizes our intended meaning. To the question, “Debit or credit?” we respond with an enthusiastic nod. There is no effective communication taking place, and by the time we leave, we have no clue whether our paper towels were, in fact, on sale, and we have successfully managed to leave an already under-appreciated cashier feeling a bit more slighted than she or he was when first we approached the conveyor belt.

But nowhere is this lack of manners and common courtesy more evident than in the shopping malls, which are really nothing more nowadays than glorified daycare centers for adolescents. The only personal space that matters belongs to them, and as far as they are concerned you are hogging it up. But they are not the only ones. Never was there a more obvious place to manifest one’s own self-importance. We bump into each other without saying “excuse me.” We violate each other’s personal space, and we mentally chastise everyone else for being in our way. We don’t say please anymore because, the way we see it, we are only obtaining that which is rightfully ours. We don’t say thank you because whatever we are receiving (whether good or service) it was someone else’s job to provide for us.

Have we all but forgotten that manners are a necessary part of communication and community? That in order to get respect we must first give it? When we cease to provide each other with small common courtesies we only foster a sense of division, a sense of self-preservation exclusive of all reliance on other people. Most of us cannot afford a liability like this. We have, whether or not we realize it, a great need for other people, for interaction, communication, and motivation. And when we disconnect ourselves, when we start to separate ourselves based on some arbitrary sense of self-importance, we cease to be a rock or an island. We have become our own sinking ship.