catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 7 :: 2008.04.04 — 2008.04.18


The company we keep

The other day on the bus, I sat down near someone about my age—late
twenties—who looked the part of an educated, white collar professional
with a hint of artistic individualism. I was surprised to notice that
he was reading a book on conquering clutter.  For some reason, he
didn’t seem like “the type.” 

Thousands of pages of
magazines and books are devoted each year to this insipid battle
against stuff, particularly publications targeted toward frenzied moms
and dads who clean one room only to walk through the door into a
freshly created destruction zone.  Certainly, there is something
to be said for the positive psychological benefits of a neat home,
where everything has its place, but I can’t help wondering how much of
our obsession with conquering clutter is at heart an anti-matter

I like this quote from C.S. Lewis, which he applies to
eating, but I think is relevant to other aspects of the material life
as well:

There is no good trying to be
more spiritual than God, God never meant man to be a purely spiritual
creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to
put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and
unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He
invented it.

Those familiar with biblical texts are probably
well aware that we shouldn’t “store up…treasures on earth where moth
and rust destroy,” but I do think there’s a difference between taking
delight in the tangible creation for which we were made and making an
idol of that creation.  Perhaps today we even err toward a
foundational idolatry of the intangible “spiritual” world while
unintentionally (or guiltily) indulging materialism anyway.  Just
on an observational level, such schizophrenic dualism seems to lead to
exhaustion, moral confusion, escapism and a general inability to feel
like a complete, content person.

In the introduction to House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live, author Winifred Galagher details the steps of realizing what her book would be about:

on in this process, I began to focus less on my home’s looks than on
two larger questions: how do the decisions we make about our domestic
world both reveal and influence our inner world?  How can we make
better choices?  A week’s stay in the anti-home that is a hospital
confirmed the importance of making the most of the home’s peculiar
power over our bodies, minds, and spirits.  Like most patients
stripped of control, privacy, individuality, and sleep, bombarded with
unpleasant sights and sounds yet deprived of the soothing sort, I
developed a malaise beyond my diagnosis.  Two days ahead of
schedule, I tottered out of the hospital, up the stairs to my bedroom,
and into my familiar nest of pillows and quilts. 

In my room’s dappled sunlight that was so different from
the hospital’s fluorescent glare, I took in the photographs, art, and
emotion-laden flotsam and jetsam that remind me of who I am and what
it’s all about.  I smelled lavender in my soft old sheets and
watched the shadows move across the apple green walls I had painted
myself.  My daughters brought me tea in my favorite cup and
sprawled across my bed.  For the first time in many days, I felt
just right.  If a doctor had sat on my bed and monitored my
metabolism, I’m certain that he or she would have watched my level of
cortisol, heart and respirations rates, and other signs of stress drop
as my spirits rose and I relaxed into at-homeness.

While Galagher goes beyond the value of objects to explore the
psychology of space as it relates to particular rooms of the house,
woven throughout her text is the principle that everyday objects take
on meaning to the extent that they express a portion of our
identities.  Galagher cites Russell Belk, a professor of business
at the University of Utah, who “describes an ‘extended self’ that
includes not just the persons and places but also the things that one
is attached to and supported by….  Our accumulation of possessions
provides a sense of the past and tells us who we were, where we have
come from, and perhaps where we are going.”

As someone who
values simplicity, I can sense my instinct to send up a red flag
here.  Are we really just the sum of our possessions?  I
don’t think that’s what Galagher or Belk are claiming; rather, they’re
attempting to explain why, for example, victims of the broken levees in
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina felt such a deep sense of grief at
losing everything in their flooded homes.  They’re also attempting
to explain why so many people who have mountains of possessions still
do not possess happiness.  Surrounding ourselves with things that
have been purged of all personal relational meaning is like living in a
house full of strangers who silently judge us for our inability to
master our own dispositions.

Galagher seems to be doing
some wonderful work to break down the barriers between our inner and
outer lives. The things with which we surround ourselves are part of
our answer to the question, “Who am I?”  Even the Spartan
existence of a monk or a member of the military is an external
expression of that individual’s desire to submit to a larger communal
identity. In that knowledge, we do well to seek a right relationship
with the objects with which we surround ourselves, understanding that
they’re not neutral, but are a reflection of our deepest beliefs. 
Though the core of who we are is not entirely obliterated in the case
of losing—or giving up—all that we have, the things we keep can be
powerful symbols of who we were, whom we hold dear and what we hope
for.  We recognize the power of such symbols when we take
seriously the charge of keeping them, delighting in the smooth coolness
of a stone sculpture, the warmth of a patchwork quilt, the vicarious
memory of a photograph.  God likes matter, after all, and so
should we.

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