Pretty Things

My grandmother moved into an assisted living home last month. After 52 years living in an old two-story bed and breakfast, surrounded by knick-knacks and colored glass dishes, she stepped into her new 18-by-21 square foot room and looked around. The walls were white with pictures of bland pastel daisies. The tiled floor was pale yellow, and the stiff double bed faced a boxy TV monitor. The air sagged with cleaning products. Her eyes were fixed on the window.

“I’ve spent my life collecting pretty things,” she said. “And now I have none of them.”

What do we spend our lives collecting?

Playground friends, class president votes, extracurricular leadership positions, high grades, acceptance letters, resume boosters, Instagram likes, high-end internships, prestigious fellowships, networking relationships, salary digits, stock options, professional awards, vacation houses, fancy cars, growing dividends, successful children, precocious grandchildren, perfect memories—they may not collect dust like my grandma’s glassware, but we store up these pretty things all the same. We’re comfortable in the clutter; in fact, we crave it.

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that we collect things for the feeling of renewal that accompanies our collecting. We don’t care about fancy dishes in themselves; what we really care about is the thrill of adding them to our collection—breathing new life into the sugar dish on a forgotten antique store shelf by giving it a place on our counter, next to the other resurrected things. And when all our time is spent pruning and polishing that collection, what we have becomes who we are. We collect not to bring new life to things, but to bring new life to ourselves. Winning the next prize or game or fellowship is how we feel good about ourselves—and how we feel like ourselves at all. Acquiring becomes our way of breathing.

What happens when we can no longer keep acquiring?

When we’re too old or tired or simply unable to continue probing antique stores or stock markets, we’ll lose the thrill of renewal by acquisition. We may not have to pack away our material possessions like my grandmother did, but our collections will nonetheless reach static equilibrium. We’ll no longer be able to look toward what we’ll have next; instead, we’ll have to find ourselves—find a way to breathe—with what we already have.

But do we ever really have our pretty things? Collecting assumes we own whatever we collect. We like to call money, houses, cars, trophies, or dishware our material “possessions,” but we really just borrow them for a little while. They collect dust on our shelves for at most a few decades, and then move on to the next collector when we’re gone.

Intangible pretty things are no different. Quoting “carpe diem,” we may prioritize memorable experiences over material possessions, thinking memories will never rust, collect dust, or take up too much space. But the problem is that all pretty things—concrete or conceptual—are slippery. We forget that after we’ve “seized the day,” we can never quite manage to hold onto it. Experiences almost immediately become memories, and memories fade. As we forget or misremember them, they are no more permanently our own than fancy dishes, bank accounts, or other pretty things.

When we one day walk into the 18-by-21 foot room with white walls and yellow tiled floors, all we’re really going to have is ourselves. And the kind of person we’re left with will depend on what we’ve spent our lives collecting. Pretty things are ephemeral—memories fade, money dwindles, prestige dampens, glassware breaks—but their effect on our character is permanent. Material possessions, skills, relationships, experiences, and memories color the way we think, perceive, feel, act, and believe. What we have is who we are because where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.

What do we spend our lives collecting? We should think about that. Our answer will tell us who we are—and who we will be once we can no longer keep collecting.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Currier House.