Managing our Stuff - The Idea of Inheritance
I was riding my motorcycle home yesterday and was thinking about goals. Specifically, I was thinking about what I'm working towards long-term. What I aspire to do at the end of all of this. Is my career a means to an end or is it who I am? I've seen numerous cases of careers taking over individuals' lives and taking their individuality away. I don't want that to happen with me but at the same time I don't have a clear sight of what the long-term goals are. I know what I would like to do later in life once the kids are grown and out of school, but as far as timelines for specific concrete plans, there really are none.
These thoughts let me to the question that I've been pondering for some time now. What am I working towards? What is this all for? How am I living my life as a means to reaching aa specific goal or goals?
At the same time I've been doing a good deal of reading about the concept of minimalism. About the idea that we don't need all of the stuff that we surround ourselves with. And I think at the end of life it is all about the experience. My father has a number of things that my grandfather left behind when he passed away. These things are sitting in his garage in a box. I have things that my father gave me. These things are sitting around the house in various places not being used. Not being appreciated. Being hoarded, I suppose.
In one of the books I'm reading about minimalism the author talks about how we keep things because we are trying to preserve memories, but it is the things themselves as much as the memories that those things generate. So if there are things that are sitting in a box somewhere, and if these things are to be preserved memories, then why is it that we don't even open the boxes? Nostalgia is an interesting thing. Sometimes it comes out of the blue and then we seek out things that will encourage those memories to come back. That's when we go digging in the boxes. Looking for connections to that initial memory that came into our minds from some random connection that we made during the course of the day. How do we ultimately preserve these memories and retain these things without having all of this to try to surround us? Things that might not have value for anyone else but that we can't get rid of because of the memory stay home?
This brought me to the realization that a good deal of what I seek out in terms of things I want to learn how to do really is motivated by creating experience. By learning new things I'm creating opportunities to make those memories. In some cases these experiences that I seek out are directly related to things that I've been interested in since childhood, and have been pursued as the result of the influence of those family members who have instilled particular interests or values upon me to influence who I am as an individual. But largely it is about striking out on my own and making my own path. Perhaps by doing this I am encouraging my own sons to look at what I've done and attempt to follow the same path of pursuing their own interests. I guess what I want to try to avoid though, is leaving behind boxes for them to have to go through and to feel obligated to keep. When I finished my doctorate, my father gave me a watch that was owned by my great grandfather. It was one of the most touching gift I have ever received. I have kept every watch that I have ever been given as a gift. I have five of them. As I continue to grapple with the idea of minimalism I am conflicted. I don't think it is wrong to have things but I also don't think it is right to have things and not use them.
These thoughts circle around in my head and sometimes they connect. Sometimes they don't. But the connection for me in this case is to the idea of boxes sitting in the garage unopened. And of what will happen to my things when I move on. Will they sit in boxes in someone's garage? Will they make those people feel guilty about not wanting to get rid of them but not necessarily wanting to keep them? About these things just taking up space? And also thinking about how my boxes are full of things that have already been carried over from relatives' boxes, to be carried over as part of those boxes that I leave behind? It isn't so much the idea of material preservation as not cultivating those memories. What I want to leave behind are the memories.
Memories are the easiest thing to store in terms of space but the most fragile in terms of transfer. Between my father and I we have only the memories in some cases of the relatives that have come before us. My great grandfather Charlie for example. My father has memories of, but I myself do not. For me the only thing that is left behind is Charlie's watch and Charlie's grave. A few years ago my father and I drove from Kansas City to Massachusetts and we drove through Virginia to see my grandfather's grave. I have a picture of the grave and I now have a memory of the grave. But with each generation the passes we lose the connection with the generations to came before us and the story ends with those individuals as they pass away. How do we preserve these memories for the generations? Do we NEED to preserve these memories for the generations? Is it necessary that we create our ties so that our future family members to know who we are? Will they even care?
Perhaps that is why my writing is prolific. Perhaps I am holding onto the idea that I need to document all of this no matter how trite or insignificant it is at the time, because a future generation might want to read back and learn about who I was. Perhaps not. But where is the balance? What do we need to keep in order to move those memories from generation to generation? As individuals we are the sum of all our parts. Some of those parts consist of family history. But at the end of it we are our own individuals. We make our own path. We decide which experiences we are going to have and why we are going to have them. We pursue our own interests, in part influenced by the interest that we grew up with, but also because those interests grow out of other experiences we may have during the course of our lives. They may grow from relationships we forge with others outside our family as we take on our own personalities and our own persona. It isn't as much about actually doing things as it is sometimes about finding out what we really like to do and what interest we may elect to pursue. The fundamental problem at hand is that these interests create THINGS. They create relics. Items that need to be dealt with when we pass. Those things are embedded with memories but are they memories that are transferable? Are they memories that mean anything to our family members who inherit what we leave behind?
This connects back to something I was thinking about a few days ago. I have a number of guitars, and I also have many parts that I could use to create additional guitars. These things take up a good deal of room and they also require maintenance. Do I want to be saddled with the obligations of a collection if and when I decide that I don't want to live in the house anymore? What if I wanted to simply go from place to place and camp? Would I leave these things behind to moulder in storage? A few of these guitars have significant sentimental value for me and I could never see myself getting rid of them. They are instruments I would want to pass down to my sons who would maybe even pass them down to their sons or daughters. But again this goes back to the idea of creating an obligation. I think when it comes to inheritance, it should be about finding out ahead of time if those individuals want those things. The only issue is that perhaps one of my sons' children might want those things when my sons do not. And to rely on the decisions that my sons are making on whether that thing should be kept for a future generation is problematic. This is a question for which I have no answer at this point. But as I continue to think about all of this it does bring a bit more clarity to the situation.
It is an interesting line of thought, and as it happens there was an article on the Christian Science monitor that came up on my news feed this morning that was basically everything I was trying to say. We keep things for the next generation, when the next generation really doesn't want them. At the end of the day, we think these things have value (Hummel figurines were mentioned in the article, something both my mother in law and her mother collected profusely) when in fact they either have no emotional value or monetary value, and actually create an obligation for children to have to either maintain or dispose of. Dispose of being a harsh word. Joshua Field Millburn describes this situation in an essay about his other passing away. About having to go down to Florida and figure out what to do with all her possessions. I don't want to saddle my children or my spouse with this sort of burden.
I collect, based on my interests, things that have unwittingly built up to be quite a burden in terms of the space they take up and the obligation of maintenance they create. This thinking about the Tao of How has really opened up my eyes to why I am doing some of the things I do. In other instances I have no idea why I have opted to collect (horde?) things. First editions of Stephen King books, for example. Guitars. Comic books. Knives. Watches. Guns. In some cases the things actually make sense because they are tools. They are facilitating creation. Woodworking. Home remodeling. But if I look at the functionality of a guitar, what does it really net me? I can pick it up and derive personal enjoyment from sitting and playing it. But does it benefit those around me? Does it provide me with a means to create anything? Music, perhaps. But WHEN will I do this? How often do I actually pick up a guitar and play it? And how much of a burden is it creating to me mentally to know that all of this stuff is surrounding me? How much less stress would I have if I only had what I needed? What would be more easily stored?
What are the essential questions we need to ask about our 'stuff?' How can we begin to determine what we need and don't need? I think it starts with looking at the items and determining whether they bring joy, certainly (the KonMari method) but I think items also have utility. But can it be both? SHOULD it be both? How many pocket knives do I need? Do the knives I have bring me joy? Certainly I can appreciate each one of them. But how do I figure out what to keep and what to throw away? Add the layer of transferability onto that. Would my immediate or extended family want these things? Or is keeping them a potential liability, in that if I don't figure out what to do with them they'll be left behind for someone else to have to deal with?
I think that's it. I can keep telling myself I'll get to it tomorrow. I'll figure out what to do with these things. But the time to start figuring it all out is now. We need to contextualize the HOW by looking at what we're already doing and whether these new endeavors, interests and aspirations can be supported in our current environment. I think there is a finite amount of space we should each determine, and this space is a very individual thing. What can our lives support? What do we have the physical space to support? What do we have the mental faculty to be able to manage? If we look at everything we're doing in the context of project management, when is a project 'done?' When is an interest fulfilled? I know how to make pens. I have a lathe. I have fulfilled my interest of learning how to turn wood. But does that mean I should now get rid of my lathe and my wood turning supplies? Is there an opportunity to continue to produce things, to create things, and perhaps even to monetize my interest? Sure. But can I fit that in with everything else I'm already doing in life?
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