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This must be the shortest Ask MR question we’ve ever received, and while I’m not sure I know the answer of whether we’re defined by our stuff, I’ve decided to attack it like I’m Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and manrepeller.com is my library window, minus the implication that I’m a genius. It is Consumption Month.
When I lived in San Francisco, one of my favorite vintage stores was this massive warehouse jam-packed with old furniture and homewares called STUFF. I never bought anything there, but I’d stop in on my way to and from places to poke around. I loved how chaotic and self-aware it was—it did not purport to sell antiques or treasures or curiosities… it just sold STUFF. And that’s exactly what it was. A hodgepodge of things that no one probably needed until they did.
What is “stuff”? As much as I usually appreciate a precise word, there’s something satisfyingly vague about it. You can love the stuff or hate the stuff. You can do stuff in an alley behind a bar. You can think that’s the good stuff. You can end almost any sentence with and that kind of stuff. You can drop off your ex-girlfriend’s stuff or move abroad and leave everything behind because it’s just STUFF.
In that sense, per your question, I guess we both are our stuff and aren’t. Because just like stuff, who we are changes depending on the context. To a random person on the A train, I’m probably the sum of the stuff I’m wearing, whether it provides an accurate reading or not. To people on Instagram, I’m as interesting or boring as the stuff I post, but also the voice of my captions and the style of my photos, which means I’m only kind of my stuff. To my loved ones, my material possessions function more like additional information than a definition. My stuff revolves around me like false confidence; it’s more impactful from afar.
But it seems like your question is responding to the human habit of defining ourselves by what we buy, which is a pressing issue right now. Not only because our attachment to material goods and businesses’ willingness to exploit it (and anything) for cash is destroying the planet, but also because our modes of communication have become increasingly reliant on aesthetics. When the internet is our primary means of connection, when we’re forced to perform ourselves online so that others can understand us quickly and in the ways we’d like, it makes sense that we’d become hyper-focused on what our stuff says about us. And who we could be if it changed.
Who would you be if you had different stuff? When you accumulate more stuff, or pare it down, do you change? For me, those shifts temporarily transform how I feel, which is important, but I’m not sure I myself am any different. I’m just me, with better taste, a cooler couch, or less junk. As I get older and smarter about the stuff I want, I’m getting better at communicating who I am to other people without talking. And better at understanding how the things around me impact my environment. But neither of those really inform who I am at my core. I’d still rather be a compelling person with no stuff than a boring person with compelling stuff.
We are nuanced and mercurial creatures, with desires and fears so deep and huge we can’t always express them. That’s when stuff can help. It can tell a story about our inner worlds that’s tangible and simple. It can help us draw conclusions about each other without sitting down for an hour and spilling our guts. Ideally, our stuff is informed by our values, too. It can reassure us of who we are, or bring us together because she likes that thing, too. That’s not nothing. It’s the power of non-verbal expression.
But not everyone has the time, interest, and resources to do that kind of work, and that’s why stuff can be a perilous conduit for our instinct to judge. Because when we’re feeling seen and known on a deeper level by the people around us and by ourselves, or feel that way about others, I think stuff has a way of disappearing into the background, of becoming something we poke around in on our way to and from something, but never the destination itself.
In the end, the math isn’t simple, but it’s clear enough. Our stuff is additive, occasionally helpful and comforting, but it isn’t everything. It’s a medium with limits. It’s a response to who we are, not who we are. And when we equate those two things, or invert them, I think we risk losing sight of the fact that our stuff is often the least interesting thing about us.