The article on Spike Jonze in this week’s New York Times Magazine was a great story, but somehow the article that has stayed with me this week was not about that fascinating filmmaker but about something much more banal: self-storage. I strongly encourage you to read it. Strangely for me, what makes the article come alive are not only the personal stories of Elizabeth, Danielle, or Terry, but the statistics. Now there is the old canard about statistics: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” So keep some grains of salt nearby. But it’s hard not to drop your jaw at some of these numbers from the Times:
Between 1970 and 2008, real disposable personal income per capita doubled, and by 2008 we were spending nearly all of it — all but 2.7 percent — each year. Meanwhile, the price of much of what we were buying plunged. Even by the early ’90s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier. By 2005, according to the Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor, the average consumer purchased one new piece of clothing every five and a half days.
Schor has been hacking intrepidly through the jumble of available data quantifying the last decade’s consumption spree. Between 1998 and 2005, she found, the number of vacuum cleaners coming into the country every year more than doubled. The number of toasters, ovens and coffeemakers tripled. A 2006 U.C.L.A. study found middle-class families in Los Angeles “battling a nearly universal overaccumulation of goods.” Garages were clogged. Toys and outdoor furniture collected in the corners of backyards. “The home-goods storage crisis has reached almost epic proportions,” the authors of the study wrote. A new kind of customer was being propelled, hands full, into self-storage.
“A lot of the expansion we experienced as an industry was people choosing to store,” Litton told me. A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.
These numbers have kept me asking: What is it about us that is so committed to buying stuff? What gap in our lives are we trying to fill? And what is it about our lives that keeps us from making judgments about value that make any sense?
Another devastating paragraph:
The marketing consultant Derek Naylor told me that people stockpile furniture while saving for bigger or second homes but then, in some cases, “they don’t want to clutter up their new home with all the things they have in storage.” So they buy new, nicer things and keep paying to store the old ones anyway. Clem Tang, a spokesman for Public Storage, explains: “You say, ‘I paid $1,000 for this table a couple of years ago. I’m not getting rid of it, or selling it for 10 bucks at a garage sale. That’s like throwing away $1,000.’ ” It’s not a surprising response in a society replacing things at such an accelerated rate — this inability to see our last table as suddenly worthless, even though we’ve just been out shopping for a new one as though it were.
With our junk, we pack like it’s priceless and shop like it’s worthless.
This is a vicious blindness. The question is how to break free. How do we come to see our stuff, our junk, for what it is? How do we learn to judge our lives aright?
Dietrich von Hildebrand, the great Catholic thinker, used to write about “value-blindness.” He wasn’t talking about forgetting how much your old table is worth. He was talking about an inability to notice something truly exalted and honorable. Maybe here is the purpose of service trips and urban plunges: they are a chance to look someone in the face who has next to nothing, and be awakened to what is truly valuable. Encounters with the poor are a chance to see our stuff in relation to persons, persons who could use our stuff for their daily needs, and whose dignity truly demands it.
After reading this article, I can’t help but think of people, people whose names and faces I know, who could use — no, need — the kind of things that I have in my closet and that we as Americans have packed away in the 2.3 billion square feet of storage in this country. When will we hear their voices? When will we see what all our stuff is truly worth?
Thanks for the post. I certainly understand how cluttered our American closets these days…I think it irrevocably ties in with the culture that is going the wrong way in our country: consumerism, individualism, bad morality, and forgetting God.
I went to the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago…I tell you, I began to understand better how poor in America we really are after that trip. And there are people far worse off in other countries, yet they have something that is seemingly missing in America. As Mother Theresa says, “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality.”
There’s no question America is searching…and it’s for God…we just don’t know it.
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that our consumerism is directly tied to all sorts of problems in our society. It’s easy for me to forget that sometimes when I’m at Target. What and how I buy (even as a Jesuit) has an impact on how I live.
Great to hear you went to the DR. It sounds like it had a tremendous effect. I hope we can all be a witness of the richness of God’s love, in contrast to the poverty around us.
Sobering statistics there. I’ve always believed that if you don’t have room for it, you don’t get it, but even with that in mind, I know I have more than I need. This post provides a good reality check of what, as you say, “our stuff is truly worth” and what we truly value.
Thanks, Denise. Sobering is the word.
There was that eighties movie-documentary that hinted at where we were heading with regards to mindless consumerism. KOYAANISQATSI or CRAZY LIFE it was called, the word being a Hopi Indian evaluation of how white men lived. Buying stuff just seems to be the only activity people participate in during their free time in urban areas. So much space is given over to retail outlets, and they are usually bright and inviting places. Who is it that refered to shopping malls as the “new cathedrals”?
The hoarding, though, seems to be the weird psychological process here. Buying, using and throwing away was a post-war to the 1970s kind of thing. But since the eighties it seems we have a need to hang on to perfectly good stuff whilst buying more and more. Accumulation is the new creed. Accumulation of wealth and stuff has become akin to accumulation of knowledge, of diversity, of depth. Teenagers are proud of their mammoth CD collections because it makes them seem individual and varied in taste and scope. Yet they are too young to realise that practically every other teenager has the same collection of CDs. I think this psychological dynamic of “individuality through one’s possessions” is carried on into adulthood. Possessions define who we are, even if so much of it is boxed up in the garage. At heart, it is a huge, collective indentity crisis. What we own starts to own us.
Great post. Thought provoking as usual.
Paul, Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the comment. I had heard of Koyaanisqatsi but I have never seen it. I will have to look it up now that you recommend it.
I agree with you that identity has a major role to play in our hoarding. I would suggest that it is in relationships with other people that we learn who we are. Yet in our culture, we are encouraged to relate to others by purchasing. Here’s hoping the Lord’s face can lead us back.