Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

What’s Our Problem With Stuff?

The best analysis of materialism is still George Carlin's classic "Stuff."

The best - and by far the funniest - analysis of our society's complex relationship with materialism is George Carlin's comedy classic, "Stuff," which you can still find on YouTube. I guarantee it will make you laugh. Turn from there to your T.V. listings and what you'll see is a glimpse of our collective psyche: we've still got some pretty serious issues about stuff.

The current television schedule announces our ambivalence about buying, owning, collecting, evaluating and discriminating objects. We just can't seem to get enough stuff; we can't let go of our stuff, and we can't seem to get enough of watching shows about the topic of stuff, either!

Do you want to know what stuff is worth the most money? Watch Antiques Roadshow, coming to your city soon. It comes with the exciting possibility that some of your own old stuff might be historically significant and valuable; antiques, not just ordinary old stuff. For more buying and selling of pre-owned objects, tune in to "Oddities" on the Discovery Channel, a show about a small Manhattan collectibles business. See the owners shop at flea markets and estate sales, garage sales and auctions, the places where people try to unload their excess stuff. The proprietors and clients of Obscura Antiques & Oddities seek out unusual, even bizarre objects. Medical oddities are their specialty, but they are really just in the stuff business, so at least they have the law of supply and demand to help them discern a seller's trash from his/her treasures. Regardless of any other value, if someone else wants it, then it's good stuff.

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The unhappy people featured on the A&E and TLC hoarding shows are not so lucky. Unable to discriminate treasure from trash, they are drowning in the sheer amount of their stuff. These shows feature hoarders, people suffering from a serious psychological disorder, whose material possessions have taken over their homes and lives. And you can watch them on more than one channel.

Carlin joked, "All your house is, is a pile of stuff with a cover on it!" For hoarders, that's no joke. And no exaggeration. Like those suffering from any severe compulsive disorder, hoarders lives are out of control and out of balance...extremes on a continuum the rest of us can recognize. We know how hard it is to throw things out or give them away. The Container Stores are profitable because we need more ways to store our stuff. Professional organizers advertise widely to come to our homes and offices for a fee and help us decide what to discard, and how to live with what we keep. Popular magazine covers promise their readers 6 new tips to fight clutter.

No one said it better than George, but the message bears repeating: whether we fight it or embrace it, store it or display it, we've got to come to terms with our stuff.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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