In psychology there is the concept of “loss aversion.” In essence, people experience losses more painfully than missing out on equivalent gains. In other words, they experience losing $5 as a worse outcome than failing to gain $5, although in some sense, either way you are out $5. Loss aversion has been affirmed in studies and controlled experiments.
I think it has to do with the perception of ownership, that somehow when something you “own” is taken from you, you lose a part of yourself. That’s what makes it more painful. It has to do with the ego and how the sense of self expands to incorporate the material goods which we consider to be our “property.” That’s what attachment to material goods means, and why losing a material thing feel like losing a piece of ourselves, and having someone take it without our consent (“steal” from us) feels like an attack on our person.
I only put some words in quotes to underscore how it’s all a matter of perception, not to deny or denigrate property rights. It’s OK to own things.
What prompted this musing is that, this summer, I helped to clean up a hoarder’s house. He is an elderly man who spends all day sitting in one chair, watching TV, and just lets stuff, including junk mail and packaging, accumulate all around him. It’s like he is sitting on a mountain of junk, a King on his throne. Over the years, much junk has accumulated and filled all the space in the house. What we were doing to help was going through piles of possessions and sorting them, organizing them and picking things to throw out. But trying to be discretionary about it, rather than rudely throw out everything (which would have been a lot easier).
Rather than dwell on this man and his hoarding, I want to think a little about my own habits of material accumulation. I’ve already blogged about that time the water spirits destroyed my house, and the effort it took for me to move everything I “own” into my partner’s home. “Why do I have so much stuff?” I wondered. I own a lot of books, board games, and discs of movies and music, and like to think I have a curated collection of the best of the best, all worth keeping. I’m loathe to lose any of it.
When I moved into my partner’s home, it took some Tetris skills to fit all my
junk stuff into her space. I fought to have a space for my games and books, but even then there was only so much room and some of it still boxed. Furnishings and utensils were sort of shoehorned into place amidst what she already owned, and a little bit of it even got donated to Goodwill. More probably could; there’s stuff we never use. And then there’s the weird thing with the clothing, where I have an entire wardrobe of business casual office wear that hasn’t seen use since March 2020. But I’m not sure if can get rid of it – what if the pandemic ends and I have to go back to the office?
I’ll say this about the stuff we never use: over time, the attachment fades. When I first moved it in, some random thing I brought was like a precious part of me. But now, if I discover something in a closet that hasn’t been used in a year, it feels less important. It’s just a piece of debris. But even then, to think of removing it from our lives feels like losing something of potential value. It’s painful, like picking off a scab. What King wants to lose even the smallest part of his Kingdom?
We all know from the Good Book that spiritual concerns should take precedence over material possessions. But in this consumerist age we can only forgive ourselves for our attachment to those material things which help define who we are.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:19-21