A collection of a few pocket knives hidden away in a seldom opened drawer tells the same story as a larger collection of unicorn figurines stored in boxes. The story is repeated by an even larger collection of wine glasses, water goblets, shot glasses, and assorted other pieces of fine crystal and cheap glass. Accumulations of “prized” possessions—some with monetary value, but more with only sentimental worth—just take up space and act like anchors, tying their possessors to places or memories that might better be left or forgotten. In time, the commonalities of the objects in the collections will dissolve; the commonalities exist primarily in perception, not necessarily in fact. The knives are unrelated to one another; they are part of a “collection” only to the extent that they are all knives and they all belong to one person. Unicorns belong together only because they share an identity as unicorns and they were consolidated into a collection only because someone decided to do so. The same is true of the crystal and glass. When the collector disappears, the collections probably will disappear, as well. Individual pieces will be discarded or go to different people or be lost to time and disinterest. Someone may evaluate both the monetary value and sentimental value of the objects and may decide neither are sufficient to merit expending the energy to keep them together.

People accumulate material possessions that do not belong to collections, too. Paintings. Kitchen gadgets. Clothing. Knick-knacks. Bottles of wine. A million and one things that, if they suddenly were to disappear, would have no appreciable positive impact on quality of life. Indeed, amassing “stuff” makes changes in one’s life more difficult to accomplish. I read yesterday of a man who seeks out unknown indigenous peoples in the Amazon. The article’s author remarked on the freedoms those people enjoy. To survive, they need only “fire, a couple of hammocks, a blunt machete.” And the man who seeks those people out to protect them from being consumed by the modern world said, comparing modern civilization to the two remaining men from a tiny indigenous tribe: “We need a home, we need a car, we need a bunch of crap. Then you meet these two guys, living happily with nothing, no clothes, no supermarket, no water or electricity bill.

There must be a happy medium between an ascetic, bare, minimalist lifestyle and unrestrained materialism. I think that happiness is closer to the former than to the latter. Unrestrained materialism, I think, is a sickness that robs us of genuine happiness, replacing it with an artificial sense of well-being that frequently is brittle, fragile, and broken. But where do we find that balance between comfort and unsatisfying greed? Is it that the more creature comforts we have, the more distant real contentment becomes? That question has remained with me for a very long time. No reliable, satisfactory answer has emerged. My opinions change with the seasons or the sunrise. Perhaps the true answer involves both physical and emotional comfort; or, maybe, the absence or minimalization of both kinds of pain. And, of course, satisfaction does not rest exclusively with one’s own experiences; others matter to us. Their experiences are closely tied to our own. The complexity of existence makes real knowledge hard—or impossible—to attain.


So much more to say. But it will wait.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Accumulation

  1. Mary K says:

    I liked it. but the like button didn’t work for me today

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