When recently replacing a battered old car, I had some flickering thoughts about whether the new one seemed to fit in with who I was. I was inclined to dismiss these, reasoning that the deciding factors should be objective, practical ones such as cost and reliability.
It’s true that our clothes, cars and homes do all express who we are to some extent. But is it a good idea to assign such an important task to external, arguably superficial, things? Or should we cultivate a healthy disregard for them and let our self speak for itself?
The psychologist William James was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea that possessions were among the things that made up our identity, saying that this included “not only body and psychic powers but clothes and house, spouse and children, ancestors and friends, reputation and works, lands and horses, and yacht and bank account”. He called this the “material self”, believing it to be a constituent part of who we are.
In a sense there is no alternative to this kind of self-expression. We quickly judge other people from what we see on the surface. We can’t help but choose the things we own and wear on the basis of our personality and values. If we were to refuse to play the game — wearing only loose black clothes, say — we’d still be expressing our refusal to play the game. It seems that we can’t be a “naked self”: we are doomed to be clothed and express ourselves through these choices.
That’s why monks wear a habit. While this still demonstrates an individual’s religious choices, it does constrain other forms of self-expression, leaving more room for contemplation. But a certain amount of wariness is in order. First, as the saying goes, the habit does not actually make the monk. While we can’t help coming to quick conclusions on the basis of first impressions, we should remember to hold them lightly, as they may well be wrong. And it seems better to concentrate on developing our self than relying on our possessions to do the work for us.
It’s easy to dismiss people who highly value their possessions as shallow materialists. Don’t they realise that they could lose everything tomorrow? As every pub philosopher knows, when you die you can’t take it with you.
The problem is, of course, that this line of attack undermines the value of pretty much everything. You could lose all your loved ones tomorrow and you can’t take them with you either. The transitory nature of all things applies to partners as well as iPads.
Still, isn’t it a mistake to identify too closely with what you own? You may love your watch but surely it shouldn’t define who you are? I’m inclined to believe it isn’t quite that easy. As the Shrink points out, our possessions cast light on who we are, whether we like it or not. However, it makes a subtle but important difference how exactly we relate to this aspect of our identities.
I see it in terms of the arrow of causation. We each have our characters, interests and values, and we look to develop these as fruitfully as possible. This will draw us towards certain kinds and quantities of possessions and away from others. An art collector, for example, might end up acquiring a valuable collection of paintings; someone with a passion for fabrics and designs will have an exceptionally large wardrobe; while a reader will end up with every wall covered by books.
Too often, however, we try to turn the arrow around. We acquire things in order to buy the kind of identity we want to have. Sometimes, as is often the case with luxury goods, this is purely a matter of buying status. On other occasions, we collect to show how tasteful or cultured we are, but our choices are based on what we think others judge highly, not on any genuine discernment.
It is fine to express ourselves through our possessions, but not to try and acquire an identity by acquiring things. We should not try to create a desired image of ourselves in possessions but should simply allow the things we have to reflect who we are.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration by Laura Carlin
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