I’m about to leave my position at Methodist University and move to Michigan.  I’ll soon be vacating my university office, so I have to decide what to do with the books and papers there.  I started the process of going though my bookcases and file cabinets over a week ago, and am over half done.  I’ve recycled perhaps forty pounds of paper and given away about fifty books thus far.  I’ve also been emptying out book cases and file cabinets at home to make room for what I’m removing from the office.

Objects—books and papers in the office, countless other things (notepads, paper clips, dishes, plastic containers, magazines, grocery store coupons, etc.) at home—constantly accumulate, like snow drifting against a wall during a blizzard.  My subjective sense of how this happens is that things accrue on their own despite my best efforts to disperse them.  But of course this isn’t accurate: it’s me who is carrying everything into my home or office and then stacking, straightening, filing, shelving, or otherwise organizing it.  The things we bring into our lives come to dominate our living space, our consciousness, and our time.  George Carlin’s famous rift on stuff (“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff”) is painfully, poignantly accurate.

Besides filling the space around us and absorbing our attention, our possessions are part of our identities. Psychologist William James wrote that “[A] man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses, and yacht and bank account.”  I’m not just defined by my relationships and reputation (James called this the Social Self) and by the contents and capabilities of my mind (James’ Spiritual Self); I’m also defined by my physical existence, including the objects I’ve accumulated.  In the last few days I’ve been attending much more than usual to this Material Self.  I can conclude from the contents of my office that I’m a collection of psychology texts, of books about human personality and potential, of lecture notes, of meeting minutes, of exams that I’ve given through the years, and of outdated psychological tests.  Or at least I was all those things.  I’ve gotten rid of nearly all the meeting minutes and most of the old exams and textbooks.  I decided I didn’t need them anymore; or, to put it another way, I changed my definition of myself.  I used to be the kind of person who had such things, but that’s no longer who I am.

Having gotten rid of a decent proportion of what’s in my office, I’m still struck by how much I’ve retained.  I can identify with hoarders, who start out defining themselves by what they collect but, unable to make distinctions, end up losing themselves beneath piles of debris.  I have to admit that I don’t actually expect to make use of everything I kept; some things I am simply attached to and am not ready to relinquish.   My holding onto things I’m unlikely to use probably stems from not fully coming to terms with surrendering significant aspects of my life.  Perhaps, as anthropologist Ernest Becker would have it, an underlying motive is denial that I will eventually die and have no further need of any of these things.  In that context, I was interested to find a brief article by cultural historian Philipp Blom on the reasons why humans collect things (he’s talking about formal collections such as baseball cards, modern art, or Grateful Dead memorabilia, but I think his views apply to informal aggregations as well).  He compares collections to a pharaoh’s tomb:

“Carefully arranged around the sarcophagus are representatives of the king’s possessions, of the wealth and the resources he needs to live on in the afterworld. Their presence is symbolic, but it assures survival. It is remarkable how many collectors chose to be immortalized through their collections, either by naming and donating them, by a continued presence as founder’s portrait or statue, or even as a wax work.”

So, do the papers and books I’ve retained represent a wish for immortality?  Will I want my casket lined with the books that I didn’t get around to reading in this life and the course notes that I’ll use when teaching at the great university in the sky?  I hope not; I hope that in the years to come I’ll loosen my grasp on my possessions, and will eventually surrender them so that I’m better able to take hold of what is yet to come.