The recent death of the Mars rover Opportunity seems like a particularly fortuitous time to talk about our attachment to material objects.
How and Why We Love Things
Humans develop emotional attachments to material objects. We start young; according to Christian Jarrett, humans as young as two understand the concept of “mine.” Three to six year olds already connect with “my” stuffed animal in a way that they do not with an exact copy of that stuffed animal – and they even express horror at the thought that they might receive the copy rather than the original.
I’ll Love You Forever
This early attachment to things travels with us throughout our lives, as well. For instance, as a young child, my high school boyfriend had a doll called Marvin. He loved Marvin. Marvin was his constant companion, and after a few years, Marvin started showing the wear and tear you’d expect a soft toy to suffer from accompanying a young boy on his every adventure.
So my boyfriend’s mom sent Marvin to the doctor, promising “he’ll be home for Christmas.” On Christmas morning, Marvin reappeared under the tree, shiny and clean.
It wasn’t until my boyfriend was seventeen that his mother revealed the twist: the Marvin who reappeared on Christmas day wasn’t the original Marvin. He was a new Marvin, gifted from a family friend whose own toddler had been terrified of the toy.
My boyfriend’s mother was proud of having pulled this switcharoo, but my boyfriend was crushed. For days. And he hadn’t played with Marvin for about fifteen years at that point. In fact, I’m not sure Marvin was even in the house anymore.
Why My Marvin?
Some of this is the result of the “endowment effect,” in which we place more value on things we perceive as “ours.” But that value is multifaceted, and it doesn’t merely have to do with financial value. It’s also value created by the perception that the object is an extension of the self.
The fact that we tend to anthropomorphize our things adds to our sense of value, relationship and identity. The manufacturers of the Roomba, for instance, report that when their Roomba breaks down, many owners request that the company fix the device and send it back. They don’t want a new Roomba – they want their Roomba.
Seeing objects as a type of person means that we can extend our emotional bubble to include them even when they aren’t perceived as “ours.” As Dan Broadbent notes, one of the things that made it so easy to cry for Opportunity was that NASA anthropomorphizes spacecraft for us. We can follow craft like Curiosity on Twitter like they’re real people – and many of us have since the moment these spacecraft started tweeting.
“Why didn’t NASA try to revive Opportunity?” was a refrain I saw online several times after the news that the rover had gone dark. The answer, of course, is that they did. They tried for eight months and 1,000 unanswered wake-up messages. And when they accepted that Opportunity wasn’t ever going to answer again, they said goodbye by playing her a love song.
And thousands of us cried, because even though she’s a 400-pound hunk of steel and tech on another planet, we think of Opportunity as a being, not a tool.
If a Mars rover provokes emotions that intense, imagine trying to discard long-held personal items in your own home.
The Cull and What I Learned From It
Marie Kondo recommends leaving the “sentimental items” category for last, on the theory that once we start sorting these items, we’ll be sufficiently sensitive to joy to make it easier to go through them.
Specifically, I think, we get more sensitive to the difference between an object that sparks joy here and now, in the present, as a thing that exists in our lives, and an object that evokes memories that spark joy but that doesn’t itself, in the present, spark joy.
Discerning the difference is essential to discarding objects, and it reaches its peak in dealing with sentimental objects.
I, for instance, have always found myself particularly susceptible to the endowment effect. For me, every object becomes sentimental if I’ve owned it long enough. Objects I don’t even own become sentimental if I see them as part of my daily life long enough. “Long enough” has a life of its own; it can be anywhere from several years to a matter of minutes, depending on how intensely the objects sparked joy when I first encountered it. (I’ve developed an endowment-effect attachment to items I found in stores before I even reached the register.)
On top of that, I’ve also spent large parts of my life using objects not only to mediate my identity, but to reshape it – and, by doing so, to reshape my personal history.
When the Past Sucks
Some people deal with shitty pasts by getting rid of everything that reminds them of those times. I dealt with mine by constantly trying to rearrange its artifacts.
I’ve been obsessed with photo albums and scrapbooking since I was a child. I regularly kept boxes upon boxes of photos, ticket stubs, report cards, newspaper clippings, stickers, candy wrappers, flyers, greeting cards, luggage tags, you name it. And I have spent hundreds of hours of my life arranging and rearranging these things in scrapbooks, pulling them out, starting over, never satisfied with what I had created and never able to keep up with the pile of things intended to go into those books.
Until I KonMari’ed that pile, however, I didn’t understand why I scrapbooked so intensely. I’ve never been interested in “scrapbooking” the popular hobby: I don’t ever volunteer to do scrapbooks for groups or teams I’m part of, I’m not interested in seeing other people’s scrapbooks, and and scrapbooking supply stores just make me feel tired.
My relationship to my scrapbooks was a deeply private obsession. It was a way to reorganize my past, to give myself the non-abusive childhood I have always so desperately wanted to have. If I could rearrange all these old little bits of paper just right, I would retroactively become the person that my survival had depended on my pretending to be.
This obsession got particularly bad when it came to photographs. I hoarded old photographs like a dragon hoards gold. I spent hours looking at them, trying to rewrite my own memories, trying to convince myself that I saw happiness in those photos and that that Kodak moment was what had really taken place.
…This kind of constant mental editing is exhausting, not to mention an Olympian feat of self-gaslighting.
When I threw those photos out, however, I cried. I cried because I had had to give up one of the most enduring projects of my life: my attempt to rewrite history, and thus to re-form myself, based on nothing more than sheer will.
(Pictured: Two once-full photo albums and a box of photos.)
For the Record….
…I can’t tell you whether going through your sentimental objects will provoke a similar reaction. Mine comes from a nightmarish childhood; it’s the unearthing of a lot of outdated ways of attempting to salvage some part of myself in the face of a world that did its level best to turn me into someone else.
Mine is also another step on a years-long journey through therapy. These aren’t realizations I could have had a year ago, and I’ve been working on my closet full of demons a lot longer than that. We have the realizations about ourselves that we’re ready to have.
Post-tidying, my sentimental stuff is under much better control. I still have a scrapbook of sorts:
It’s organized chronologically, and it’s a combination of various awards, childhood artwork, letters from loved ones that were particularly meaningful, and so on. It also contains the photos that aren’t going on our walls.
I also sorted through my box of non-flat childhood keepsake items:
This one was particularly interesting because I had managed to stuff that box with items that I kept not because they sparked joy, but because the anxiety associated with getting rid of them was so high I couldn’t mediate it. And the anxiety items – all of them – were things family members had given me as a way of keeping me attached to our shared heritage of generational toxicity.
In Spark Joy, Kondo says that if you’re having trouble saying goodbye to an object even though you know it doesn’t spark joy, try tossing a few handfuls of salt into the bag to settle the spirits.
I’m not a practitioner of Shinto by any means, and I’m not even particularly religious, but whipping a few handfuls of kosher salt into the trash bags in this photo worked. I was able to carry them to the bin with a sense of peace I haven’t experienced…well, ever.
I don’t know if it settles any other kind of spirit, but it sure settled mine.
I also added a feature to my writing space of which I am particularly proud:
Stuffed animals are perhaps the biggest victory of my childhood. My mother was constantly deciding by fiat when I had “outgrown” them and trying to dispose of them accordingly, and I was constantly rescuing them and buying new ones. That Popple is the result of the only fight of my childhood that I won.
For years, as an adult, I stored my stuffed animals in a plastic bin in the basement, believing that the person I was supposed to be wasn’t supposed to have them but too in love with them to simply throw them out.
On Kondo’s advice, they now live on this shelf, which is right next to my desk. I can look up and see them there, cheering me on, whenever I’m writing.
(The mother who fought me about owning stuffed animals, by the way, is the same woman who rescued her beloved stuffed animal Tigger from the trash on a half-dozen occasions when her own mother tried to unilaterally dispose of him. I think this is what they mean when they say you can either learn from the mistakes of the past or repeat them.)
Next time: Storage and Cleaning.