Recently I have had many discussions about the mentality of collectors and the materialistic nature of our society. In these discussions it has been very difficult to get my point across as precisely as I would like. Sometimes I feel like an alien from another planet when trying to communicate my ideas. It’s almost as if the people I am trying to explain them to are incapable of comprehending my thoughts. Part of the problem lies with me, so I write this in hopes that I will be able to get my point across.
Let’s start out with definitions.
- Attachment to materialistic values or possessions
- The theory or attitude that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life.
The way I see the world, consumerism and materialism are evil. Personally, I have little to no attachment to physical goods. Physical objects are just arrangements of atoms, so are people. Nothing in the world has any intrinsic value. Simply owning, or possessing, objects is completely meaningless.
Now, I’m not going all Buddhist monk on you, don’t worry. Objects do have value, just not in their existence alone. What you have to understand is that the value of an object lies within its function. A computer is an incredibly useful and powerful tool, and thus it is worth more than a paperclip. Some objects are more valuable because they are necessities to life, e.g.: food, shelter, water, etc. You might note that I’m not talking about monetary value, but intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of any object is not contained within the object itself, but within the use of that object.
Now, people in our society have gotten it into their heads that somehow possession of goods is important. This materialistic viewpoint is incredibly harmful and wrong. I buy things and I own things, but not for the sake of owning and buying more. I own things so that I have access to their functionality. Buying things and having things does not make me feel good. I feel good when I do useful things, and owning objects is simply a way to facilitate many of the things I like, or need, to do.
Let’s use books as an example. I own quite a few shelves of books, but I down own them for the sake of owning. If I could get rid of them, I would, because they take up too much space. The reason I have the books is because I want to read them and I want to share them with others to read. If I don’t have them, then it becomes very difficult for me to read them whenever I wish. Buying and owning books is not an end unto itself, but simply a means to make it more convenient for me to accomplish other real goals.
In the society I live in, I am a rare breed. Everywhere I look I see people caring very deeply about what they own. Let me tell you a semi-true story about someone we’ll call Bob. Bob was not a cool guy. Bob had nothing interesting to say, and his personality was grating. Bob was highly skilled at certain video games, but he had no other useful skills whatsoever. Bob was basically a waste of space. So what did Bob do? He bought things. Bob bought imported video games, yet didn’t play half of them. Bob bought a drum set and never played it. Bob had a problem.
Bob’s problem is one that most of our society has. He judged himself based on the goods he possessed. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated that you should judge people based on the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. I like to further that statement by saying you should judge people by the content of their character and nothing else at all. The only criteria I use for judging good people from bad are their words, actions and thoughts. Since there is no way to read thoughts, I have to assume that people’s words match their thoughts. What you own means nothing. However, if you think that what you own is important, if you are a person who judges yourself and others based on material wealth, then that is a trait of your character I view as negative. And that is how I view collectors.
I used to be a collector in my childhood. I collected baseball cards, comic books, superhero cards, Magic: The Gathering (Money: The Wasting) cards and a lot more. I enjoyed the activity of organizing and reorganizing things. I fantasized about how valuable my collections would be in the future. But worst of all, I judged myself and others based on material wealth. It was hard not to, since all the other kids did it as well. Every recess it was disputes about who owned more Nintendo games. If you had a full set of cards you were suddenly cooler than every other kid on the block. In my childhood what you owned defined how good you were.
It wasn’t until much later in life when I realized how much time I wasted. I could have spent that money on useful things. Now all I have is a box of useless cardboard with pictures of baseball players printed on it. I could have spent that time learning things or building my skills. Instead, I have a lower skill level in many areas than I could potentially have. I could have spent more time working on being a better human being instead of just becoming an owner of useless goods.
And thus, you see my dislike of collectors and the collector mentality. Yes, there are people who enjoy collecting, and that’s good for them. However, if you ever try to ask the question “Why do you enjoy collecting?” there is no good answer. Let us explore many answers someone might give to this question.
Someone might collect things because they are obsessive compulsive. They enjoy the act of organizing and reorganizing things. Organization and the constant battle against entropy are well and good, but not when done uselessly. If you want to organize things, get a job filing in a doctor’s office. Organizing baseball cards serves no useful purpose other than to satisfy a psychological disorder.
Someone might collect things for financial gain. There are some very valuable collections of rare goods out there, and their owners stand to make a tidy profit. However, if you actually were to analyze collecting as a financial investment you would find it is incredibly bad. The amount of time and effort required to properly maintain a collection is tremendous. The amount of time for a return on investment might not be well until after the collector’s death. Playing craps in a casino is a better investment than the vast majority of collections. The only way to make money in the business of collecting is to take advantage of collectors and their collector mentality. The guy who owns the store selling autographed baseballs and baseball cards has always made more money than the guy who collects them. He realizes that owning those things is not a good way to make money. The way to make money is to sell $10 baseballs for $100 to some guy who thinks it will be worth a lot, or to some guy who thinks it makes him a better person to own such a thing.
Someone might collect things for the sake of learning. That is a good thing. Oh no, did I defeat my own argument? No, I did not. The fact is that there is almost nothing to learn from the vast majority of collections. A comic book collection really has nothing to teach anyone. We already know all about comic books, they hold no secrets. You can gain all of that knowledge without access to a comic book collection. Heck, you can probably gain most of that knowledge without reading very many comics at all. Collections we can learn from are all very ancient things found in museums, libraries, etc. And that is where they belong. They belong there so that everyone may learn from them. So even if you were a noble collector, collecting for the sake of knowledge, it is not good unless you share your collection with the world. I view hoarding knowledge with equal negativity as I view materialism.
Someone might collect things for the sake of preservation. There are many physical goods out there which are not invincible. If they are not taken care of, they will be lost to the world. Whenever we lose a very old object it decreases the power of human beings. There was once something we, as a people, could do, and it required the use of a particular object. Now that the object is gone, that ability is lost. Preservation is indeed a noble cause. However, yet again, all real preservation work is done by museums, libraries, etc. If you are preserving something privately, that is essentially the same as letting it be destroyed. If there is a rare thing which people can not access, then it might as well not exist. Also, most things people collect do not require preservation. The human race does not need you to collect every issue of National Geographic. The publisher and many libraries are already doing a fine job.
The only other reason I can see that someone might get enjoyment from the act of collecting itself is materialism. They feel better about themselves the bigger collection they have. They brag to other collectors about how much bigger and more valuable their collections are. They even view other collectors as being better people if their collections are bigger or better. It’s the old analogy of a sports car being a penis extension. In our society it is often true, even if it is not conscious.
Personally, I look down on people who value meaningless collecting and have materialistic world views. If they want to judge themselves or others based on what they own, that to me is the same mentality as judging people based on how they dress or where they live. Judging people based on such criteria can be viewed as a character flaw, and a character flaw is something you can judge someone by. Therefore, I do not view collectors in a very positive light.
If you disagree, which I’m sure collectors do, then answer one question. Why do you enjoy collecting? An Apple Jacks answer is no good; “I just do” doesn’t cut it. Using the powers of logic you must deduce what exactly about the act of collecting and owning a collection causes good emotions in your brain. If you can not accomplish this task, maybe it’s time to rethink a few things. Are you really living your own life if you are acting on impulse without thought? Are you really in control of your own destiny if you do not know the reasons for your own actions? I’ve thought about these things long and hard, and as a result I stopped collecting things long ago. I am genuinely curious to see if anyone has a good answer.
Engaging in intellectual discussion is a worthwhile use of time. Take a few minutes off from admiring your shelf full of useless trinkets and please think about this very serious question.