The Magic of Ownership

KeyHow much of what you own is kept because you like the idea of owning it? And why do you feel that way?

J.D., over at Get Rich Slowly, has been posting a series of articles describing his reactions to cleaning up his mother’s house for her during and after her serious illness — a series I sympathize with because last year my sister and I had to do this after our mother’s death. Recently he described how the experience has forced him to look at some of the things he owns and consider how much of them he doesn’t use but keeps because he likes the idea of owning them — they represent something important about him to the wider world.

He is grappling with another aspect of the magic of possessions.

Possessions can be perceived as performing a sort of sympathetic magic, so that owning the accoutrements of a certain lifestyle, social class, profession, or pursuit will somehow bring that lifestyle, class, profession or pursuit into our lives. In this case we may not actually belong to that category, but we aspire to it, and owning the trappings helps strengthen the link between ourselves and the state we hope to reach. Even more satisfyingly, owning such possessions may cause others to mistakenly assume we belong to that aspirational group, which is almost as good as belonging to it. Status is, after all, socially constructed.

Possessions can be perceived as acting as a magical or symbolic extension of ourselves, a visible representation to others of parts of our identity that we want to show to the world. We hope, by accumulating and displaying them, that others will immediately comprehend something about ourselves that we consider important or essential. Most of communication is, after all, nonverbal.

However, it’s not always easy to untangle these two strands of magical thinking. Have I accumulated a number of sturdy antiques because at some deep level I’m hoping these well-preserved old objects will give me a sense of history and stability that I, as an Air Force brat, don’t possess? Or have I accumulated them because I hope to present to others the fact that I value uniqueness and durability more than mass production and ephemerality? Do I own a rapier because I aspire to be the kind of person who can use a sword, or because I want to represent to others my love of swords’n’sorcery?

Hard to say.

Nevertheless, as I look around my apartment, I have to acknowledge that many of the things I own I keep  because I like the idea of owning them rather than because I use them on a regular basis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — the rule of possession is that you keep only the things you use or love, and presumably the things you love will be things you enjoy owning.

Still, it’s worth reviewing your motives for keeping something. If you’ve rethought your aspirational group or if you’ve changed your habits and interests, it’s probably time to do some purging. There’s no point in clinging to a lie or to the past — make sure your possessions represent who you are now.

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