The Things You Own

23 Jul 2012

The Economist:

Dichter concluded that it wasn’t exactly the smell or price or look or feel of the soap, but all that and something else besides—that is, the gestalt or “personality” of the soap.

This was a big idea. Dichter understood that every product has an image, even a “soul”, and is bought not merely for the purpose it serves but for the values it seems to embody. Our possessions are extensions of our own personalities.

In our journey to adulthood, we may give up our security blankets and teddy bears, but that hardly means that we overcome the very notion of relating to the world around us. Our connection with objects does not disappear, it changes and grows more complex and intimate. We bond with books and cars and picture frames, believing that they tell stories about who we are as people: “these are the things I like, the things that hold my history”.

It is self-definition; it is storytelling; it is the creation of personal mythologies. The products we buy define us and there are examples aplenty: in choosing to drink Starbucks coffee, we become the kind of people who go to Starbucks, adding ourselves to a group that is marked by this commonality; likewise, we all have heard someone proclaim, full of self-righteousness, that they would “never eat at McDonald’s”, describing themselves by the products that they would not deign to use.

We are who we are by our choices, but we regularly forget the width and depth of what it is that we do choose. We live haphazardly, from moment to moment, without deliberation. We buy for convenience. We buy for price. We buy without regard for the kind of people that we are becoming through our purchases. The things that we own begin to own us, begin to tell stories about us that we had no intention of making true.

This is not to say that thrift is foolishness or that convenience is without value. As in most of my preaching, this is a matter of the examined life. Live deliberately; with the discussion of virtue and the life of enquiry.1 We have these minds capable of thought and self-definition, so use them. Look around and ask yourself what stories your possessions tell about you.

It is the greatest good for a human every day to discuss virtue and the other things, about which you hear me talking and examining myself and everybody else, and that life without enquiry is not worth living for a human.

  1. Plato’s Apology