Updated on 09.19.14

Attachment to What We Have and What We Want

Trent Hamm

price of privilegeRecently, I’ve been reading the excellent book The Price of Privilege by Dr. Madeline Levine, which discussed the prevalence of depression and social problems among affluent teens. For the most part, the book lays the blame for this problem squarely on the parents: in their race to affluence, they failed to give adequate time, attention, and focus to their children. She even goes so far as to talk about “soccer moms,” suggesting that they often fall prey to this – they give their children some of their time, but not their focused attention, pointing out that driving your children to soccer practice while talking on one’s cell phone is not giving them reasonably valuable nurturing.

So why mention this book here? Along the way, Levine makes a few very interesting points about how materialism often becomes a substitute for real relationships. She recounts this story on page 46 (my emphases added):

As a young and inexperienced therapist, I was part of a team counseling a very wealthy couple going through a divorce. The wife would spend hours in my office lamenting the loss of her lifestyle. She wept most about her sheets. She had spent years sleeping on the finest Egyptian cotton, carefully ironed and scented by the laundress. As a twenty-eight-year-old financially struggling intern, I was at a total loss to understand her sorrow about her sheets. Now I understand that those sheets were a stand-in for the many things she was losing: her marriage, home, family, friends, and status. Decades later, I understand her upset about losing her costly cotton sheets. “Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities.” We all have things, luxuries, really, that we’ve become attached to and would feel deprived without. Liking stuff isn’t the problem; liking stuff more than people is. My patient was losing a lifetime of connection, and yet her grief centered on the things, not the people, she was losing.

When I reflected on my own life, particularly my wants and desires, I quickly realized that Levine was onto something.

Not too long ago, several people asked me what I wanted as a gift for my thirtieth birthday. I made a list of several things – a decent food processor, a couple of DVDs that I’d watch over and over again, some food items that I wouldn’t normally splurge on (like amaranth flour), a board game, a few books, a video game, and Rosetta Stone French.

When I thought carefully about all of those requests – even the ones that seem to be fairly solitary activities – each one of them revolves around a feeling and a relationship I share with others. The items are just manifestations of the connections I have with other people.

Take the food processor and the food items. I love preparing dinner for my wife and my children – I do it almost every night. There’s something elementally pleasing about the experience, and those gifts simply let me expand on that connection.

The books? Books educate me and give me thoughts to share with others. I love talking about books with my wife, and that shared experience of a book we’ve both read and loved is sublime.

Even Rosetta Stone is about an experience. I dream of a family vacation to France, getting outside of the city and into the countryside. I want to learn enough of the language so that such a trip is actually reasonable and possible for us, and as I use the software, I’m thinking of my wife and I in a French inn, enjoying a bottle of wine, or camping in the Alps and exploring the terrain with my son and daughter.

Here’s the real truth: as I’ve stopped buying so much stuff and started thinking carefully about the purchases that actually matter to me, they wind up being ones that are inherently tied to personal meaning and personal relationships. Stuff for the sake of having stuff doesn’t really have any meaning in the end – the stuff that has meaning is the stuff that you can share with others, or that profoundly changes you (and thus your relationships with others).

I think my continued interest in video games is a good example of this. When I was in a period of purchasing a video game a week, I would often leave games in their wrapper for months on end – in fact, when I finally got rid of my PS2, I had about twenty games still in their wrappers.

What I was buying wasn’t a video game. I was buying a shared experience. When I realized that, I realized two things: one, buying more video games was like scratching a mosquito bite – it just made the itch worse. Second, the value I actually got was in playing through the games themselves, sometimes personally growing as a result of it, and sharing that experience with my friends – loaning it to them after I’ve finished it, talking about it, and so on.

A great example of this is the game I’m currently playing on my Nintendo DS – The World Ends With You. It’s not only one I enjoy talking about with my friends, but I’m already looking forward to lending it to one friend in particular when I finish it so he can play through it. Not only that, it’s steeped in nostalgia for me, taking me back to my high school years when I sat around one of my friend’s living rooms for literally hours and hours as we played through long games. There’s a lot of personal meaning there.

For you, the connection to others might have other elements. For the lady in the story, for example, her connection to others was manifested, oddly enough, through her sheets – they provided a deep, personal comfort to her.

This is why sometimes it’s hard to let go of stuff. You’re not really that concerned about the item itself, but you’re losing the connection to someone else or some part of you that the item represents.

Perhaps you want to keep a good book that really warmed your soul, and you seek out new books that can click with you in a similar way. You’re not wanting books, you’re wanting that connection. Or maybe you can’t imagine life without your cell phone – it’s not your cell phone itself you care about, but the connections it helps you make to others.

The next time you get a burning desire for something beyond an actual need, one so strong that you feel compelled to just go buy that item, think about this: is it really the object that you desire, or is it something else? Are you perhaps trying to fill an empty space inside of you? Bring back a high moment in your life? Create a connection with someone, or build upon that connection?

Then, ask yourself if there isn’t already a way to achieve that desire.

Maybe instead of buying someone a gift, you might be able to connect more deeply with a visit or a long phone call.

Perhaps instead of buying yet another video game, you could play through the one you have, then call up one of your friends, get together over dinner, have a great conversation, and swap games.

Instead of picking up yet another book, go join a book club a the library or simply check out one of the books that clicked deeply with you.

Instead of buying something to escape from your situation, tackle the thing that you’re trying to escape head on.

Good luck in finding your answers.

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  1. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Great article and wonderful insights into the problem alot of people have trying to fill emotional holes in their lives with “stuff”.

    I particularly like your comment on video games. I played games alot in highschool and recently took it up after years of not playing. The reason I quit for a while, I thought, was because I was too busy or because I had outgrown them.

    But now I realize it was because I didn’t know anyone during that period of my life that played also. One of the greatest benefits of being a gamer is being able to share your experience with other gamers and trade games back and forth (which saves money!). Now that I work with other folks who are into gaming, I’ve started it up again.

  2. JReed says:

    Next time people ask you what you would like for your birthday, since you are over the age of twelve, try making a list of charities you would like a donation to be given to anonymously. And tell no one else about it. You will then enjoy the best birthday gifts ever…pure joy, content, and freedom from the materialistic world. Try this for one year and I promise you will never go back to asking for dvds and kitchen appliances.

  3. Betsy says:

    What a wonderfully resonant post.

    One of the big changes my family has made in the past couple of years is in the way we give gifts. My sister has three kids and any new toy is now greeted with mixed emotions, because it means giving away an old one. I bought a 920-square-foot house and had to beg my family to stop giving me *stuff*.

    So now we give each other experiences: weekend classes, concert tickets, babysitting time, sports lessons for the kids, an afternoon cooking and freezing dinners, and — the very best, the one that I immediately thought of while reading this post — the gift of our expertise. My mom is an amazing quilter, and she’s teaching me to sew. My dad is teaching my nephew to do woodwork and furniture refinishing. And I put together boxes of favorite books (and audio recordings I did on my computer — free and fun!) for each kid, which they can exchange for new books/recordings when they’re tired of them.

  4. Brandon says:

    As a new parent I have heard some good advice but one thing that has stuck with me is that “you don’t want to raise a kid who is experience rich and relationship poor.” We strive for shared experiences, not just with us but with others. We have found 3 or 4 people who we want to influence our daughter and we intentionally ask them to babysit first and always do what we can to get her to spend time with those people first. I hope they become the people she goes to when she is older and looks for advice from people outside of her family.

  5. davidvanb says:

    Beautiful article. Everyone should read this. Spending quality time with your kids should be cherished so much more than a new gadget, game, article of clothing etc. yet so many people take the easy route and parent with their wallet not their heart.

  6. A little irrelevant, but I find dual texts better than any software for picking up vocab, idiom and comprehension of grammar through context and reference to the English side. They’re sadly scarce, though. You can always pick up the French version of a novel you know well in English, though.

  7. Ryan McLean says:

    This is a really good point. Often we buy things that take away from our personal relationships. Like video games like you said. I love buying technology and sometimes this can do exactly that. I still love it but I will definately think twice about whether or not it helps build my relationships.

  8. Penelope says:

    My husband has been trying to convince me to invest in some video games, which I secretly enjoy, we’re playing Neverwinter Nights right now, but I never really thought about the personal experiences that we’re sharing. Thank you so much.

  9. Carlos says:

    You, indeed, are a wealthy man. At your young age, coming to realize what you have is precious…

  10. Jeff says:

    Great post Trent, thanks!

  11. Daizy says:

    I find it easier to keep myself from buying new things now that I realise how attached I get to useless stuff and how much money I waste. The stuff I already have I find VERY hard to get rid of because the emotional attachment is already there. I need to work on that.

  12. Heather says:

    I recently lost someone close to me and it made me evaluate the decisions I make and the way I spend my time. Unfortunately, that’s probably how most of us learn that relationships are more important than “things.”

  13. eaufraiche says:

    What an interesting article about what sounds like an important read!

    We’ve become a society that’s starved for connection, and, as you’ve written, our habits of spending don’t satisfy our needs to connect with our packs. Hence, the obese tushies and closets.

  14. Kate says:

    This book sounds good. You, Trent, are testament to the fact that lots of money isn’t necessary when raising emotionally strong, well-rounded children.
    When people ask me what I would like for a gift my first response is always world peace, followed by donations to charity and last on the list is free trade, shade grown coffee. On another note… My son said that he wouldn’t donate, though, to a charity for me because he didn’t want to get covered up with mail from other charities–he sends the money and I donate it myself. I have thought about this and wonder how many other people are hesitant for the same reason–

  15. Scottie Dog says:

    I have thought about this concept for a long time back in the day. I decided to research “success” for a while and read several articles about famous folks who had had what we might call a “close call with the grim reaper”. They all stated that success was not based on their achievements or amassing stuff but on the quality of their relationships. I have taken this to heart and try to stay focused on real wealth. How many people come willingly to my funeral.

  16. Leisureguy says:

    You can probably access Rosetta Stone French for free through your local library. Check it out.

  17. Keely says:

    If you learn French, teach it to your kids.

  18. antiSWer says:

    This was a great post and I am seriously considering purchasing that book now.

    As as social work student, I have worked with clients that are completely disconnected with their social life and instead connected with their material life. I have talked with clients about their significant objects in an attempt to reach at some deeper meaning.

    Ah, if only some rationality could come into our consumerism…how things would change.


  19. Denise says:

    The story about the woman mourning the loss of her sheets got me to thinking. I used to live in my exhusbands house and then the divorce. I now live in a nice apartment and life is good, even though i really, really miss my clothes line. I sometimes fantasize about my clean clothes drying in the sun and wind. Its funny what you can miss; the small things are often the most important.

  20. Patricia says:

    Thoughtprovoking post again.



  21. Georgia says:

    I am in the position now, since the death of my husband nearly a year ago, of getting rid of all the clutter in my home. But most of it has those sentimental feelings attached. It is hard to let go.

    But I need to do it so my children won’t have to. I am 71 y/o and in very good shape and plan to live to 123, but I could get a big surprise about that. So, I’d better get busy and keep only a very few memories and let the rest go. In fact, the kids probably wouldn’t even know the value I attach to most of my stuff.

    Thanks for the warning.

  22. Jenny says:

    Kudos to you…this was a point on article. I would also HIGHLY recommend the book “A Nation of Wimps” by Hara Estroff Marano. Even if you don’t read it I would at least look over the reviews of this book and you will see how similar it is to “The price of privilege”.

  23. Sandy says:

    The author mentions moms talking on their cell phones while spending quality time with their kids. Nowadays, I see that all the time with young moms. They have babies with them, and are yapping away to somebody about some important matter. All I can see as a bystander is the litlle person being totally ignored. I used to wait til naptime to do all my calls…when the child is awake is time that ideally, moms focus on the child. It’ll be interesting to see how these babes turn out.

  24. Jake says:

    I understand your need for decluttering now :)

    Why not just ask for money instead of stuff?

  25. reulte says:

    Georgia — you might want to ask your children what objects they might value sentimentally and set it aside or have them taken it now.

  26. Sally says:

    I have experienced the other side of that – getting rid of “things” that remind me of people that I no longer have a relationship with. Or – not purchasing a certain perfume because it reminds me of less than good times. That being said – sometimes a thing is just a thing – useful, convenient or necessary.

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