Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

All About Stuff

 

In a Perfect World

 

I was walking along a country-ish road near my home one morning when I noticed something on the ground that did not seem to fit in with its surroundings.

The area was carpeted with new green foliage, hardy weeds and last year’s leaves. Strewn about on this carpet were rocks of various sizes and shapes. What caught my eye was an object whose shape appeared man-made rather than part of nature. Looking closer, I saw that it was a child-sized brown plastic football.

How had that particular toy come to land on that particular patch of roadside? Instantly, my imagination went to work. I pictured a small, sandy-haired boy, say about three years old, sitting in his car seat and playing with the football in the back of his parents’ car as they drove down the road. Like all children, he was curious. What would happen if he held the football up to the half-open window? I imagined him trying to balance the football on the window’s open edge. I pictured his dismay when it fell out and vanished.

Even as I sympathized with his loss, I realized that I was inserting my own feelings into that mythical little boy’s situation. I was unconsciously equating that lost roadside toy with pieces of household furniture I’ve seen left out on curbs for pick-up. These, too, often arouse a certain poignancy. I picture a young couple excitedly choosing that piece of furniture for their new home, and then their growing family sharing meals at that table over the years, or reading by that lamp, or sitting cozily together on the couch that’s now being tossed aside to make way for something newer.

I don’t know how those families actually felt when the time came to get rid of an old, familiar household object, and that’s because I have no way of knowing their relationship with that object. They may or may not have felt a pang when they deposited it at the curb and turned their backs on it for the last time. That little boy may have cried bitter tears when his plastic football disappeared. It is also entirely possible he simply asked his parents for another toy, begged for a snack, or just forgot the whole thing and fell asleep.

I have no way of knowing. Because each of us has our own unique relationship with our “stuff.”

Attaching and Amassing

Many of us possess a certain amount of memorabilia that we’ve saved at various stages in our lives. A shoebox filled with crumpled show tickets, cards from long-ago friends, souvenirs from trips we’ve taken, and the like. Things we can’t bear to be parted from because seeing them, or even just knowing that they’re there, evokes fond memories and warm feelings.

Sometimes the desire to hold onto things deteriorates into a need to hoard them. A healthy and natural human predilection for surrounding ourselves with tokens of the past can descend into an unhealthy obsession to surround ourselves with… anything and everything. Thankfully, this is the exception to the rule. Most of the time, we hold onto the things which are important to us and find it fairly easy to discard those which are not.

Which begs the question: what is “important?” For that imaginary sandy-haired boy in his car seat, a child-sized plastic football may have been imbued with a vital significance that would seem laughable to an adult. But we have our toys, too. And it’s not always that easy to get rid of them.

If we’re not busy amassing souvenirs, we may be stockpiling supplies. “I can’t throw that out! What if I need it someday?” I’m talking about things we used once and may conceivably want to use again at some nebulous point in the future: those “just in case” items that have such a perilous way of multiplying to fill basements and garages. Gadgets we bought as a novelty but never actually incorporated into our daily routines. Books we enjoyed and have a vague notion of rereading someday. Canned food we bought in vast quantities because it was on sale. Knick-knacks and accessories that caught our eye and briefly tickled our fancy. And clothes. Let’s not forget the clothes.

I know people who have the very good habit of clearing outfits out of their closet as soon as they buy something new, to prevent said closet from becoming inundated with out-of-style or seldom-worn garments. I try to embrace this custom as well. But it’s easier said than done. Pulling a much-loved dress or skirt or top off its hanger to give away can feel akin to giving up a child for adoption! I’ve grown attached to these clothes because they feel like a part of me. They’ve been a part of my life and are interwoven with my life experiences.

A Silent “Thank You”

Is anything wrong with concern of all items we own? Yaakov Avinu didn’t think so. While he may not have felt any sentimental attachment for the pachim ketonim which he crossed the river to retrieve, he certainly considered them important enough to go back for. Chazal tell us that Dovid Hamelech was punished for tearing Shaul Hamelech’s cloak. Clothing must be treated respectfully. In fact, so does everything else. I remember once, when manhandling a window blind, hearing someone suggest that I treat the blind with respect. I was taken aback. Respect a window blind?

Actually, yes. Treating even inanimate objects with respect is a step on the way to treating our neighbors, our spouses, and the driver in the next lane with respect. Correcting the little things is a way to polish our middos for the big things. Because, as a wise person once said, “the way we do anything is the way we do everything.”

Moshe Rabbeinu did not personally initiate the first three makkos in Mitzrayim because he owed a certain hakoras hatov to both the water and the earth. Really? We’re supposed to be grateful to things that neither think nor feel? Things that are not even alive?

Yes. Strange as it may sound, we owe gratitude to anything that has ever helped us. Since coming across this idea, I’ve sometimes found myself offering silent thanks to objects that have been useful to me. Expressing gratitude to a disposable spoon before tossing it in the trash? Really? It may sound silly, but that spoon provided a service for me. The least I can do, before consigning it to oblivion, is to acknowledge that the thing existed, and that it served.

Every time we feel grateful, it’s as if we’re lighting a tiny candle. The more grateful we are, even to the little things that help ease our passage through life, the more candles we light. And the brighter the world becomes.

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