by James Strauss
Stuff. It is said that most of life is all about stuff. Whether the “stuff” of life referred to is real estate, bling, cars or art, it’s all “stuff” accumulated, saved and traded by almost every member of the human species. Of all animal species, it is humans alone that possess the ability (blessing or curse) to become so attached to stuff. Possibly the only link to other predator species might be in the fights and possessiveness of lower animals with respect to territorial disputes. The territory, and prey within its boundaries, might well be described as a form of stuff. Many things have value to some humans, but not to others. In Polynesian cultures, and among both the Eskimo and Native American tribes of North America, the ownership of land was an unknown concept and one never quite understood until many years after other cultures had invaded, and successfully claimed, all the land. Wars have always been (and today remain) fought over “stuff”. The other supposedly violent differences among all cultures are not causal reasons for going to war, although they many times are lied about when it comes to supporting man’s never-ending pursuit of, and fighting over, stuff.
To paraphrase a well-known quote by Nietzsche “If you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss begins to stare back at you.” The ownership of, and pursuit of ownership of, stuff does not come without tethering. To tether means to connect to, or to tie to. For example, if one buys a piece of property, then the ownership of the property has to be maintained with the payment of taxes, utilities and upkeep. The value of the property goes up and down due to all manner of vagaries. A person who owns property is as much owned by the property, as the other way around. Automobile ownership is the same way. The auto must be fueled, mechanically maintained, insured, sheltered and driven. Perceived value is inherent in the desire to possess stuff. The value comes from the ending connection between our stuff and its ability to become intimately adhered to our lives. A property may be left to lay fallow, an automobile may be left parked and unused, or even jewelry may be set into a box never to be worn again. The “stuff” is still there, but the value of the stuff slowly erodes.
Property is stuff which has been physically labeled and described. Property also goes to the heart of the word ownership. And ownership leads to cultural differences, laws and formalized relationships. Why is man so interested in property, and in adjudicating its use, possession and function? Because of survival. It’s a little tough to be a farmer out on the prairie with fields to be sown, but with no tractor, seed, or labor to plant. The farmer needs more than land “stuff”, he or she needs a whole lot of other “stuff” in order to survive, much less prosper. But given the stuff, human beings excel so far beyond the capability of non-property owning or understanding species that there is no comparison to consider. And the price for that might well be termed loss. How? Loss of freedom. Loss of time. Is all the time spent maintaining or increasing the value of property held, no matter what kind, worth the time consumed by the process of securing that value?
What is freedom? And if one is to be free, then what is one to be free from? The word freedom is so oft bandied about and discussed in the modern era,that the truths about human freedom have been lost. Freedom is not doing what one wants to do without restriction. That is called being alone. It is easy to have total freedom of such definition if one lives in a cabin in Montana fifty miles from anyone else. Is that the kind of freedom that any normal human would pursue? No. Freedom among other individuals is not nearly so simple because the freedoms of one person are so easily considered to be at the cost of infringement to others. When the Soviet Union fell, a system of government that became known for a lack of personal freedom, the Russian people were set free. Free to do what? Starve. Human beings can be totally free but they can also get totally dead because human beings have not evolved to survive without social and physical support systems of great complexity. As Kris Kristofferson observed “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Whether human beings like it or not, they have tied themselves closely and quite tightly to stuff, but for the most part, have either ignored, or denied, just how much the stuff they have come to require effects everything they think and do. A person who does not own a house on this planet, or a plot of land, lives in a different (and often less comfortable and survivable) social order than an owner. A person who does not own television sets, or radios, lives in a different (and potentially less comfortable and survivable) physical world than a person who has access to bulletins and information of approaching danger. A person who does not have access (and therefore attachment) to transportation lives a much less comfortable and safe life than a person who can travel almost anywhere at any time.
Humans who claim to be luddites and possess only the barest of technologically advanced stuff generally only survive because they are living close to humans that do. There is a direct tethering of material stuff to man that cannot be successfully denied by anyone living today, and it works both ways. A home, car, and all electronic devices need to be fed energy, cared for and used. Real freedom awaits those who do not possess, maintain or use their stuff. Real freedom from being tethered to stuff will always be a very short and transitory period in a human’s life, if it is to be experienced at all.
The old bumper sticker slogan: “He Who Has The Most Stuff Wins” was accurate, even if coldly and harshly expressed.