Adventures in Anti-Materialism III – The Curious Case of the Anti-Materialist Animist

January 12th, 2007

The last time we dismantled the physical elements of our life, Sam observed that I was quite possibly the world’s only living example of an anti-materialist animist – I compulsively get rid of stuff, yet worry all the while that my things will take their rejection personally.  Sam’s observation, characteristically, was both funny and insightful and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.   

I have, at least since adolescence, had a terrifically obdurate anti-materialist streak.  I probably accumulate things at a slower rate than most people; but what really sets me apart is the regularity with which I have complete purging sessions – going through my clothes, books, music, papers, research, household items and ruthlessly gutting my collections down to a minimum – or sometimes into oblivion.  I used to think that I did it to be organized.  Later, I thought that I did it to avoid having physical “anchors” that tied me to one place, and prevented me from, say, moving to another country at the drop of a hat.  Over the past few years, however, I’ve experienced a truly remarkable rash of nearly annual material guttings of my life, followed by violent and radical relocations.  In the last ten years I’ve moved half-way across the country three times, moved to different countries and back three times, and moved from one US coast to the other three times.  I’m starting to think that maybe on some subconscious level I orchestrate these violent and radical relocations as an excuse to have an anti-materialistic purging session.  I guess time will tell – right now I’m doing everything I can to stay put in California, though in a wry and not surprising twist of fate, all of the people who are interested in advancing my career are on the East Coast.

Lately, I’ve been very into practicing non-judgmental observation of my own personality – thinking in terms of personality type rather than in terms of strengths and weaknesses.  Along these lines, I’m inclined to just accept that I’m sort of a materialistic nihilist – I strive to consume less and less, and I periodically create reasons to whittle myself down to the bare minimum.  But the last several times I’ve gotten rid of everything that didn’t fit in my car, the experience was deeply emotional and left me feeling raw, vulnerable, and sometimes grief-stricken.  The problem is that I can’t shake the feeling that objects have some kind of consciousness – that they know whether I’m a respectful inhabitant of the earth and user of it’s resources; they know whether I’ve used them well, whether I’ve done my best to find good homes for them when I no longer need them.  But as anyone who has whittled a two-bedroom three-story townhouse down to what will fit into a Toyota Echo on a strict time-budget will tell you, you can’t always find good homes for everything.  Piles of things inevitably get left in front of the Salvation Army at 2:00 AM.  Good, useful, hard-working things get thrown into dumpsters – soon to spend the rest of their good, useful, hard-working potential languishing for eternity in a municipal garbage dump.  Furniture is left on the curb, under threatening clouds that could instantly turn a perfectly usable couch into a water-logged waste.  Hand-made hand-me-downs with uncertain provenances are abandoned to make their own way in the world. 

Once, when I was about five, my family packed a picnic lunch and went for a long car drive.  I remember doing my best to hold all the parts of my sandwich together and eat it at the same time – no small feat for small fingers.  Inevitably, some little bits of cheese crumbled away and fell onto the green carpeted floor of the car.  I watched them rolling around down there, far below my swinging feet, and was overwhelmed with grief.  It was bad enough for the little crumbles to be separated from the rest of the cheese… but then, oh horror… to be ground into disgrace and useless oblivion on the floor?  All of that life-giving potential wasted?  I haven’t changed too much – if the same thing happened as an adult, I’d find a way to discreetly pluck the cheese crumbles from the floor and toss them out the window into some grass – to be eaten by animals or find some other more direct way to return to the cycles of nature.  And so, just as I am compelled by circumstances and internal directives to leave a nearly-new much loved and still shiny dustpan propped up against our apartment complex dumpster with a “free to good home” post-it note, so too will my heart break as I watch it disappear in the rearview mirror.  I am convinced that it is feeling forlorn and abandoned, that it can’t understand why it worked so hard for me only to be cast aside when it became inconvenient. 

Now, I don’t actually believe that either the cheese crumbles or the dustpan were crying inside.  I think, instead, that I experienced a kind of momentary hyper-awareness of all the energy that went into producing those objects and bringing them into my home:   extracting the raw materials from the animals or the earth, transforming them into food or plastic, stamping them into forms, packaging them, shipping them to stores, selling them to customers…   Abandoning even the simplest of items begins to seem like a monumental act of disrespect. 

Sam wonders why I insist on projecting “souls” onto pieces of plastic, only to torture myself.  I wonder how it’s possible to be respectful of energy in all its forms, and live in a capitalistic world.

Entry Filed under: Anti-Materialism

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