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?