My friend was surprised to be called a materialist. She wasn't greedy, yearned for things all the time, or associated status with wealth. But she had just told about a love for stuff of high quality, of caring make, of elegance and authenticity. "You're a materialist!", her friend exclaimed; but not of the greedy kind, but of the caring kind - apparently.
She told me this story as I was admiring her salad bowl, inherited from her great grandmother. It was sturdy, hand made, with a simple pattern, a wide ring around the bottom for stability, and a lip for pouring. "I love hand made pottery," I said, and then said she; "You're a materialist." It came as a surprise to me too.
Economic materialist show up in psychological studies right next to narcissism and depression. The equation of the ownership of things with merit is a recipe for unhappiness. There is always someone more wealthy than you, forever. You'll be climbing that ladder, forever. Yet, I didn't feel me and my friend was there. This wasn't a pathological materialism.
And sure, everyone needs to be able to provide for themselves. I think Alain de Botton was inspired by Epicurus when he said that material stability was an important factor in who one should choose as a spouse. Poverty is a burden on a relationship.
Epicurus himself chose to live among his friends; so economic independence for him was a strategy to protect his circle of friends from the tribulations of the economic system. Sadly, no one is safe in this regard. Nonetheless, it is safety that is at stake here, not status. But this is not the kind of materialism we found in that kitchen. Not economic materialism then, but rather, perhaps, an aesthetic materialism.
Closer and closer. I bend down to study the japanese bowl at the museum of industrial design. "A shape" the plaque said, "was practised by the individual potter at least a thousand times before it was said to be learned." I let that sink in. A thousand times. But I can't make that shape thousand times. I can't even hold it once.
Later, at home, I pour both hands into the cupboard to bring out a hefty blue stoneware bowl for baked potatoes. It is cold to the touch. "I haven't even handled this a thousand times," I think as I start cutting the potatoes. But I will. The bowl is an heirloom too, but only in its first generation.
I've thought about throwing it out a dozen times, but now I'm having doubts. What if I can't know the bowl before I've lived with it for many more years? That can't be right.
This new version of materialism turned not to be that easy. What do the things demand of me? If I can't throw the bowl out... does it own me? I look at my phone, which I've surely done a million times, and this idea of reverse ownership starts creeping in under my skin. I feel owned by all these things; like they are freeloading in my brain, living there to make themselves known, and cared for. Which turn on a special kind of anger in me, and I tell those things in my head; "If you're going to stay there, you better be important...", and as soon as it drops, it pours out of me like the light of day falls on the earth, first on the snowy tops, then into the deepest valleys. They better be important.
I come to myself again after being deep in thought, and look around my living room. Some things are important, some things have been important, and some things will become important. Probably ought to do something about those last two. Then I think about my friends salat bowl. That, will always be important. And I try to think about how many things I can have in my life that are and always will be important, and about how many things I want to be that important, and no conclusion is apparent, or even in sight. This is just one of them things which turns out to be truly difficult.