08 October 2014

The Importance of Objects

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As I have been thinking both about what to replace (unhealthy) shopping with, and what makes an adequate or smart purchase, I have been pondering the question of the place of objects in my simplified life. If minimalism is about shifting values and priorities - away from material possessions and toward growth, relationships etc., does it mean objects have no importance at all?

A few days ago, I entered my silver-by-the-weight shop, where a thought-provoking event happened. This shop specializes in silver and semi-precious natural stone jewelry - pendants, rings, earrings and bracelets made of turquoise, cornelian, quartz, amethyst, ox-eye... - and housed a significant reduction last week-end, to make room for the Christmas season's collection, I suspect.

Among the clients, there was a woman, who seemed to have been looking around for bargains for a while, necklaces and bracelets on a counter, when she saw a quite big, and expensive, necklace. She had to have it "such a beautiful piece", and wanted to pay it by card "so it can be debitted next month". Only, the card machine didn't work quite properly.

That's when I was left quite in wonder. She wasn't aggressive or unpleasant, but she was... frantic, giving them several cards to try. From the body language, the short breath, the quick movements, there was a sense of urgency, as if she was bargaining food for her children. Yet she was trying to pay for a necklace she couldn't afford this month, and which she didn't even know existed ten minutes prior. I reminded me of all these awful news we hear from the other side of the atlantic after Black Friday. People battling for objects as if their life depended on it.

And, paradoxally, what happens to these objects later? I will never know if this woman will wear and cherish her necklace for the years to come, but I've read many stories of untouched items, price tag still on, at the back of a closet, while the person is frantically making their next bargain at the department store.


The  Importance of Acquisition

In minimalist literature, it is often said that the consumerist society gives too much importance to material items. And this uncanny scene of the woman with the necklace in my jewelry shop could be a proof of that. Buying objects to show off a certain image, social status...

But, I don't think consumerism gives importance to objects. Because once bought and shown off, they are forgotten and replaced by the desire for a new acquisition. The desire to acquire never ends, as shopaholics, for the most extreme example, can attest. When you look at a "regular" Western home today, I'm not sure every single object looks like it is important, and well taken care of.

So may I present you my alternative theory: I think that, in a consumerist society, it is the acquisition of new objects that is important, more than the object itself, once acquired. This woman was frantic about acquiring a new necklace at 40% off. Of course, this is a general idea, and she might cherish it until the end of her days and pass it on to her daughter. But how many times have I, myself, given a lot of thought, time, energy to crafting a wishlist, looking for the perfect addition to my closet, interior or bookshelf, only to move on to the next wishlist once the object acquired? I have always been careful with my possessions so the object was well taken care of after purchase, but it wasn't "important" anymore, the prospect of the next acquisition was.

In a simple life, it is the importance of acquisition that diminishes, above all. At least in my opinion, I find the main benefit of simplifying my life has been to mind less about wishlists and shopping trips, freeing more time for other things. And also, to never have that sense of urgency when you realize that you may not be able to acquire this object after all.


The Place of Objects in a Simple Life

So, if the acquisition of new objects is less important in a simple life, what about the place of objects themselves, the ones you already own? The whole point of my shopping fast, item-wise,  is to increase the "use" part of the consumerist cycle - meaning, making the most of what I already own and slow down both acquisitions and purges.

That's when I realized that, contrary to what common "minimalist wisdom" may suggest, material items are not unimportant. On the contrary, it is about cultivating gratitude for the moments we spend, the objects full of stories that we own and make our life more joyful. Ever since I've slowed down my purchases three years ago, acquired fewer new things, I've been more careful about my items. I've taken better care of them, organized them in a more practical way, and always made a point for my items to be adequate - the proper quality and characteristics to meet my needs.

I find that the importance of items is double: the utilitarian importance, of having an object that fulfills its job flawlessly - mainly because you have few objects and don't look at replacing the ones you have any time soon. Then there is the life improvement importance - a nice teacup which makes your morning coffee more joyful, a luxurious cashmere cardigan, soft and warm, which makes your outfit comfortable and elegant. So you'd be picky about what you surround yourself with - useful, or joyful items, there wouldn't really be a place for a cheap approximation if it creates daily annoyances.

Finally, there are the stories an object tells. In my version of a simple life, I have fewer objects and make fewer acquisitions, but they are more meaningful. Purchases I have pondered, saved for, looked forward to. Objects that have a meaning - a present from a loved one, a souvenir from a travel, a hand-made object for which I met and talked to the craftsman. In a way, simplicity gives back to the object, the creator and the craftsmanship its due importance, instead of just buying cheap crap to be disposed of without a thought.


But These are Only Objects

 I think that, when the minimalist literature says objects aren't important anymore, it's because they mean "compared to your loved ones, your objectives, your growth". And I agree that in that sense, there is a shift of priority - it isn't that important to curate the perfect collection of items.

I have noticed that, in the transitional period between full-blown consumerism and progressing at living a simple life, there is a shift of obsession, from acquiring a lot of objects and accumulating, to an obsession of curating the perfect collection. I have seen it on blogs and articles, and I have lived it myself. Maybe because the shift of priorities is still ongoing at that time?

But, in the end, even if objects are not unimportant, in the way that a simple person wants to surrounds themselves with useful and joyful objects, they aren't a top priority in life either. When something breaks down or a new need arises, you'll spend a reasonable amount of time looking for the best option for a replacement, and stop your research as soon as you found an adequate option (as opposed to looking at all the options to make sure you found the perfect object). Then you'll move on to other activities.

In a way, objects are tools, and, if carefully selected at the start to be adequate, they make your life easier and improve your every day moments, but "silently". Meaning, you don't have to think about them constantly. You don't have to think about how to maintain them, or will the cat destroy them, you won't get angry because your friend's child broke a vase: it's only an object. In a way, what matters is the moment, as improved by the object, rather than the object itself.

The second aspect of objects being "tools", is that they don't define you, your identity, cultural background or social status. They are here to fulfill a role (which can be only to make your interior more beautiful), make your life easier and more joyful, but you don't consider them as an extension of who you are - they do not raise above their condition of "objects" in your priorities.


In Summary...

In a simple life, you grant more value to the objects you surround yourself with - selecting them carefully, valuing the time and craftsmanship necessary to create them, picking items that do the job best - but the objects themselves and your collection of items are not a high priority - in the sense that you don't spend that much time curating and making wishlists and maintaining your collection, and you don't get a heart attack if something breaks. And you don't get frantic if your credit card doesn't work when purchasing a necklace you can't afford.

To take the coffee cup as a concrete illustration, I would buy a hand-made coffee cup from a craftsman on a market over a cheap Ikea one, I would take good care of it, and I would be satisfied with owning only one cup of coffee. I would value this cup as the result of the craftsman's work, but it doesn't define me as "a savvy shopper", it's just a coffee cup. I would enjoy my morning coffee time before going to work, because that's what matters. If the cup breaks, I'd be annoyed but it wouldn't be the end of my world, because the morning coffee time still exists, I just need to find another tool (a new cup) from now on.


Does it make sense? This is the kind of abstract article in which I'm not sure how clear my ideas are exposed. What do you think? How important are objects in your life, and what do you aim to achieve?

30 comments:

  1. Great article. I enjoy all of your blogposts!

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  2. This is such a great post - I am pretty sure I've been that woman at some point, desperately after something I can't really afford to buy, with the impression the world might end if I don't go home with it. Only to what.. discard it a month later? It's not worth it is it? I'm really enjoying your insights into your shopping fast and observations - can't wait to see what else you have in store for us!

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    1. The impression that the world might end if I don't get it, yes! I've felt that way before - it's THE deal, the perfect thing, if I don't get it I'll regret it all my life... And what happens to it a few months later? Owning a blog, it's been very helpful to bring perspective by perusing my own archives from the earlier days when I published sales wishlists and all. It makes me remember how frantically I could be looking for the perfect basic white tee and how important it seemed at the time, and then remember what happened to said tee in the following months. I also imagine myself on my death bed - would I really say "I really regret I didn't buy that dress in October 2014, you know". Anyway, thanks for your input, I'm glad you like the shopping fast thoughts and all, I'm always wondering if it's of any use to the readers :)

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    2. ah but it's so much easier to buy the thing that makes me look like the mysterious, interesting, cool, intelligent, capable woman than actually working on becoming that woman. If I could use the level of precision I have in maintaining my wardrobe to my personal/professional life I would be running the world by now.

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    3. I totally see what you mean here, and I think marketing and brands are counting on this. It's so much easier to buy a mahogany bookshelf and 150 books than it is to actually read and critically consider these books (to become a reader with such and such cultural background and knowledge for example). And it is true that it is easier to curate a collection of items that makes us looks the way we want to be, rather than making the self introspection and efforts to become that person in action. And ads tell you that if you buy this pencil skirt you will be more elegant, professional and intelligent. I totally get it as the style I had until spring 2011 was exactly that: buying "real woman" clothes because it was easier than actually behaving like a proper adult.

      I think it can be a kickstart though. I mean, when you have a rather low self esteem or some areas of insecurity, maybe it's a way to kick change to buy something to carve that image first. Like buying the mahogany shelf and book collection before actually reading the books, or buying the pencil skirt before actually working on our self esteem, who we want to be and how to become that person. I'm guessing it only works if actual actions follow, whereas our consumerist society tends to keep us stuck at the image building stage...

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  3. Food for thought, I agree with everything! It's a balance between cherishing and obsessing over objects. Objects can bring me joy, but you're right about how it's more about the feeling (whether nostalgia or self-esteem, or something else), activity or symbol more than the object itself. Although I think good craftsmanship is worthy of salutation in itself, considering the labour and creativity behind it. So I would get upset if something like that broke, but not more than for a few minutes. Will definitely be back to read this post as a reminder!

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    1. Forgot to mention: kudos on pinpointing constant acquisition obsession rather than materialistic obsession. I think you're onto something with that analysis!

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    2. Thanks! I agree that it's a balance between granting value to objects without giving it too much importance in our overall lives. I think that it's a mix between a slow and steady change of values over the years, and active and mindful reminder of these when in the middle of a wishlist or shopping trip. I'd like to think it gets easier over time to make more mindful purchases and maintain that balance :)

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  4. Terrific post Kali, as always. I really recognize the woman in your story, and I have probably been her a few times myself (although probably online where my shame was less public, haha). I LOVE the hunt of a new item. I try to stick to items that I actually need of course, but I still love it. Finding out where to get it, reading reviews, comparing prices - phew! And if I order the thing online I get to check the mailbox several times a day for maybe a week or two, which is also exciting in a weird way. Finally getting the item can almost be anticlimactic after all that excitement.

    I definitely am much less interested in buying things than I were before, though. Thank goodness, or all this blogging of mine would have been completely pointless! Whenever I see something in a store and find myself thinking "hmm, maybe..?" it is nearly always followed up by "nah, don't need it". I try to envision the situation where I would need the item and I always realize that I already have something that does the job.

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    1. Oh yes that's an exercise I do often as well - try to imagine using the item concretely, tomorrow, and check if it would really be an improvement, or if I already have something I'll rather reach instead. Helped me put so many things back on the shelf this year :)

      As of the hunt of new objects, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing - constant hunt for new things all the time can be, because it takes up time and energy, and you never enjoy your new acquisitions because you're too busy thinking about the next one - but when it's less often I actually think it's a part of creating a story and a meaning for an object. Taking the time to save for it, decide that this month, it will be for this object, then the hunt, the find, and this great joy of finally getting it and unwrapping it... As long as it's part of the object itself and not the hunt for the hunt, I think it can be healthy, but that's only my own view of course.

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  5. I think I understand what you're saying, I'm just not in that place myself. I have started on this journey towards less & sustainable. But it's taking me a long time to get over 'obsessing' (mainly over clothes). I spend a ridiculous amount of time planning out my wardrobe, making inventories, analysing my style, analysing other people's style ... Sometimes I tire myself ;). Although obsessing over my current clothes or over a few selected pieces I want to acquire (and when I find them, I will probably be as frantic as your jewel lady :p), is definitely more healthy than over-shopping, it's still not where I want to end up. I'd like to be able to spend my time more on things I know are important to me (like reading (even) more, my husband, exercise, or taking up music again ...). Probably I just need to accept that this change will be slow, what with the days flying by between work, chores and social events...

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    1. I definitely think it's a slow change. I still obsess over some things sometimes, it comes and goes. One of my key learnings of my years of simplification is that everything comes when we're ready to welcome the change, so it is slow, and sometimes it's frustrating because there is a time difference between what the brain realizes and wants to do, and when we are actually ready to do it.

      I also have another theory about obsession about a certain type of items. I realized that this life simplification journey made me know myself better. I stopped buying manga, CD and DVD when I realized I used them to show off my "cultural identity', so I didn't need to do this anymore I could just keep reading and watching stuff and talk about it without owning the DVD, then I stopped obsessing. For the wardrobe, I obsessed for as long as I was style searching and refining, I wasn't quite satisfied with the way I dressed because I had to understand things about myself first (self esteem, body image etc.). I only stopped obsessing about my wardrobe these past months, when I started blogging less about personal style, because I think I have stabilized my personal style, as a result of understand my own relation to clothes and body image better. So it got healthier, my style fits me well and, even if I still have items on my wishlist I'm satisfied with my wardrobe and obsess much less about it. (I've been rather obsessing about jewelry instead but that's another story).

      Anyway, the point as supposed to be - I think obsessing about an area of items is a part of learning about oneself and what we really like, trial and error, and understanding beyond the objects themselves, and that's a slow process indeed, but I thik it's part of the process so I agree that it's healthier than mindless consumerism because it's the way toward something else. I'm not sure what this comment has become, hope that makes sense.

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    2. It does to me, thank you for your thoughtful reply! 'There is a time difference between what the brain realizes and wants to do, and when we are actually ready to do it': will remember that one :)

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  6. I think it took me a really loooooong time to get to the point where *things* didn't matter as much to me anymore. It was always a cycle of buying and purging, buying and purging and it felt so frivolous and empty. I decided earlier this year, after breaking several expensive mugs and outgrowing a lot of my clothes that it didn't really matter how much I bought or what I spent my money on, it's all just *things* that could mostly be replaced. I found that the more things I bought and especially the more expensive ones, the more I upset I got when they broke or got destroyed. It was just not very healthy.

    It took me a long time to overcome the need to buy something for the sake of buying. I'm not entirely sure if I can live an existence where I don't buy (maybe if I moved to an Amish community or something), but I think I'm a little better at discerning a real *need* from a *want*.

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    1. I see what you mean about buying expensive things and then being upset when something happens to them. Actually that's what made me stop buying higher end brands full price. Because then, when you outgrow them, or it gets moth eaten, or you realize it was a puchase mistake - it becomes too much of a big deal, for an object. How guilty I've felt about spending 150€ on a jumper I then forced myself to wear, how upset I was when my closet got invaded by moth a few years ago. I agree, that's unhealthy and I think one of the parts of not granting too much importance to objects is maybe to not spend too much on them in the first place. At least that's one of the things I did to avoid getting too attached or upset about my objects.

      I agree with you that I don't see how it's possible to stop buying or wanting altogether though. My objective is to engage in more moderate and mindful shopping, but I think it's OK to enjoy the good sides of shopping when it's in moderation and when it doesn't compromise a bigger, more important financial investment.

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  7. This post definitely made sense, and was refreshing to read. So many other blogs are constantly telling their audiences to have more, make more, etc. which is why the messages of your blog posts are so great. I've really been working on having less "stuff" in my own life, and your blog has been great to read through that process.

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    1. Thanks! I'm happy that the word is spreading and that it helps you in your own journey, that's the goal :)

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  8. I read this post yesterday and have been thinking about it since then… As I opt to live a simpler life, your words made me wonder if I’m trapped in the “curating the perfect collection" stage. It takes a lot of energy for me to fully understand that objects are not an extension of who I am, I mean, one of the reasons I buy so sparsely is because I tend to buy only the things that match my identity. Between what I need and what I love, usually the decision lies upon in the person envision myself, for instance, if I was the lady in your story, and spotted a beautiful necklace which I absolutely loved, the fact that I didn't need it wouldn't be enough for me, I wouldn't by it because I not the kind of person that’s spends money not earn yet (note: I don´t think that’s all wrong, and I know that using credit cards can be a very smart way of managing your money, the thing is that it just isn’t me). I’m not aiming to be a savvy buyer, but usually prefer to buy in local stores, organic food, cotton and linen closes, cruelty free brands of cosmetics… because I feel it suits me and my life. And yet, I totally agree with you when you say “they don't define you, your identity, cultural background or social status”. Yeah, I’m trapped alright!

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    1. I see what you mean though. When it comes to what actions we can take as consumers (when you see the "Story of Stuff" videos for example), we have a lot of power in the decisions we make, the things we decide to purchase, how and when we decide to purchase them. We "vote" with our wallets in a way.

      And, within this mindset, it does make sense to make the decision not to buy something because you can't afford it yet - because you don't want to get in debt for objects, or to want to buy local, organic or ethical. It's a way to support these initiatives. Just like buying high street is a way to support the fast fashion economy. That's a different debate though I think, because it's about actions and choices, more than the objects themselves. It's the act of purchase and its conditions. Our collections of objects don't define us but our actions do. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I agree with what you're saying about finding items that "match your identity".

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    2. You're right, I was all about actions and choices, not the objects themselves, and indeed it is a different thing. I reread the whole post and it makes all sense now - thank you Kali!

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  9. I was buying fire insurance for my home the other day, and it got my thinking about how I would feel if the things I like so much, like my clothes, bags, shoes, books, all burnt down as well. It was a nice way of reminding myself not to place too much value on these things beyond what they are - they're not your identity, your being, they're just stuff. It's also a good reminder not to spend too much on them, since not being infinitely wealthy, I would feel a pang about all the money that went up the smoke.

    I like your coffee cup example, such a wonderfully simple way of summing up your thoughts and as always, I admire your ability to just continue with a train of thought and examining a theory from all angles and reaching a conclusions. Me, I give up halfway and close my window instead.

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    1. Oh I see the feeling about the fire insurance. I didn't purchase any specific fire insurance for my home lately, but I did run the "what if everything went up to flames?" scenario in mind head a few times since I started simplifying my life. And I agree with your feeling - it can be very upsetting to see all this money, and these stories, go up into flames but in the end it's a good reminder that these are only objects. And anyway, even if there is no such dramatic event as a fire, objects do get used, lost, stained or holed so it is indeed healthy to avoid putting too much importance into them. Thanks for the appreciation, although I have the tendency to type as I think, I don't know if that requires any specific skills :)

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  10. I think this might be the most useful, spot-on piece I've ever read about minimalism, materialism, and -- as you put it -- the importance of objects. Brava -- yes to all of it.

    You are on to something for sure with your comments about the shift from obsession with acquisition to obsession with curation. I also notice that in a lot of cases that shift takes the form of an obsession with purging "excess" possessions. Which seems like just the opposite side of the same coin to me, not truly a new kind of relationship with material possessions. (But, I admit I might be biased, considering that I am currently working on a blog post titled "Why I'm not getting rid of my stuff." ;-) )

    There's also an element of privilege that runs through these discussions but is often unacknowledged, in my opinion. Yes, the material excesses that often come with modern life in Western cultures are an example of privilege that we should feel uncomfortable about. But there's also a lot of privilege contained in the ability to "curate" one's collection of objects, and even in the ability to purge one's belongings. Sometimes I detect an undercurrent of: Well I only have less than X number of {insert category of objects here} so I don't have to feel guilty about my privilege. You know?

    I wonder how it might be possible to show that different relationship to objects that you've articulated here on a blog? Images are static and that makes it much easier to focus on objects as objects. I can take a picture and say: "Oh, I love my new soap dish." But how to convey the pleasure of using it through the usual conventions of a lifestyle blog?

    Thanks again for writing such an excellent and thought-provoking post.

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    1. I love this comment about privilege. It's something I often do feel: guilt over purging items that still 'do their job' (by which I mean e.g. keep me warm and covered and somewhat decent). When style blogs preach things like 'don't hold on to anything that doesn't make you feel good' or 'strive for a closet filled with things that convey your style perfectly' I feel that in a way they are promoting wasteful behavior. Buying clothes for style and self-expression IS a luxury and we must acknowledge that. On the other hand, I try not to beat myself up about it too much because I just do have the means to renew my wardrobe to better fit my style and needs so why should I look like I don't? I also donate to alleviate the guilt - but then it remains ironic how I can find satisfaction knowing that someone poor will now 'get' to wear the things that I have deemed inadequate for myself...

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    2. That's a very interesting angle to discuss indeed - the question of how the relation to objects change and how to express it in such as outlet as a lifestyle blog, and the question of privilege, waste and guilt.

      I think I mentioned this sometime in the past, but I have noticed - again within minimalist literature and my own behaviour - this concept of minimalism as a way to alleviate the guilt that can come with overconsumption. From the "but I have a one in, one out rule so it doesn't really count as a new purchase" to the "It costs half a rent but since I'm curating the perfect collection the price is justified", there is a lot of justification and rationalization going on under the pretext of minimalism, for sure.

      But again, I wonder if it isn't part of the process too. You'd justify an expensive purchase by the change of mindset (avoiding cheap, disposable crap and hoping to love and wear it until your deathbed), but after a few of such purchase mistakes, after realizing that you don't love the object for years, or that it isn't as sturdy as the price suggest, or that your budget didn't go down at all, this strategy, and "justification", may not work as well and you grow and change your relation to the objects.

      I know I personally want to be mindful about that - which is why I've been tracking my purchases and purges this year. Minimalism and "curation" can indeed be too temptatious an excuse to keep the endless buying and discarding consumerist cycle.

      As to how to show a different relation to objects on a lifestyle blog, I don't know, I'm sure there are many creative ways and post concepts to come up with. I'd say one of the signs would be to blog less about our own collections of objects by themselves and blog more about experiences, stories and all? For example, instead of just showing a spotless living room, explaining where the objects come from, the story behind each, the meaning crafted around them, the joyful moments each of them brings...

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    3. Oh god, YES! I think about this ALL the time, often in combination with "would my grandma have thought this was a sensible purchase?". My grandparents kept things until they fell apart and could no longer be mended, not because they were out of fashion or because they wanted to curate the perfect collection of whichever thing. "What would Grandma do?" is seriously my minimalist mantra and I try to live my life more in tune with what she would have done.

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  11. I think the idea of a "perfect" collection of objects is as much an illusion as continuously buying new stuff in the hope that we will feel better, or somehow more complete. Getting obsessed about finding the just right object, cherishing it, caring for it, is of the same materialistic nature as over consumption. Objects are objects. Meant to be utilitarian. If they are nice to look at, the better but that should not be an end it itself.

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    1. It's much probably as much of a wild goose chase indeed. I sometimes think that this race after owning as few and well curated items as possible in some minimalist circles is quite similar as the regular keeping up with the Joneses. Like the Joneses have become minimalists along the way and we have to own as few and tasteful items as them. Anyway.

      I do agree with you that objects are objects and they shouldn't raise above their condition of tools that have a purpose. Sometimes I wonder where our priorities lie, when I see mothers dragging children along the shopping mall instead of spending time playing with them and all. I'm not judging, I don't have children and may need to take mine to the mall one day because I have no choice, but, well...

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  12. How true this is. I can relate how in my past I would get excited about the newness of an object, which abated almost as soon as I got home. The result was a house full of stuff that was never enough, that is, until I finally woke up. :)

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