Let's talk about things. Not just any ol' things—but the things that we call our own. In other words, our possessions—even though I don't really care for the word 'possessions' because, in this age of politically correct namby-pambyism, it has been tainted with a negative connotation. You see, when I assert my possession of any given thing, I attempt to delimit it not only as mine, but sometimes also as not-yours. Nowadays—at least in 'enlightened' circles—this has an air of selfishness and consumerism about it—deservedly or not. It's become distasteful to like material objects too much because it reveals your shallowness and shameful incapacity in the face of a marketing juggernaut that endlessly convinces you that you need more things—when in fact you may not even really want them, let alone need them.
Think about it: Usually when there is some sort of major natural disaster, you turn on the news and see a guy with bad teeth and no shirt standing in front of a pile of two-by-fours and detritus that used to be his double-wide. When prompted for a response of some kind by a news reporter, instead of barking, 'My home is a landfill! How the fuck do you think I feel?' like any sane person should, the victim plays nice and, as if reading from the script, says something like: 'Possessions can be replaced. I'm just glad all of my family is safe.'
I call bullshit. And I'm not discounting the part about being glad that his family is safe. I'm willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt on that score—which is a major benefit if you've actually seen his family—but I am calling bullshit on pretending material possessions aren't important. Because they are. It's just a fact. Anything that we want to possess is important to us—to varying degrees, of course—but there's always some spiritual residue inside us that tries to deny this fact, as if we might be diminished in our selfness somehow by our materialist proclivities. Now don't get all bent out of shape and think that I'm saying that objects are as valuable or more valuable than people. This isn't a rerun of MTV Cribs, after all. I'm only saying that in addition to the value we place in ourselves and others, there should be strong but subordinate value placed on our possessions—which, to the extent that they do provide us with pleasure without diverting our efforts for a more profound, philosophical happiness, are useful accessories of the smaller world that we build around ourselves.
In other words, objects should never define my happiness, but they should increase my pleasure—when and if my pleasure doesn't interfere with my higher personal goals and ambitions. In other, other words, stuff is good. Or it can be. There is nothing essentially wrong with it, and there is no need to demonize the materialist, consumerist impulse when it's restrained by a developed sense of priority and discipline. If you argue that most people don't have a developed sense of priority and discipline, I would be inclined to agree with you—but these personal failings contribute to countless problems, some of them far worse than consumerist appetite. As a point of comparison, blaming consumerism for the consumer's lack of discretion and control is similar to blaming alcohol for alcoholism. The argument doesn't work. The affliction inhabits the body and not the symptom.
If you were predicting that this long, windy defense of material possessions (and material possessiveness in general) was nothing more than a cheap rationalization of my own attitudes, you're sharper than I gave you credit for. You see, just this past weekend, while I was traveling on the other side of the country, my luggage was stolen. Some of you who know me are tired of hearing about it already—and will likely write this off as more dead-horse-beating—but when has that ever stopped me before? I've lost my iPad, a wedding gift, a new pair of shoes, several articles of clothing, including a favorite sweater and a new jacket, a phone charger, three prescription medications, a keyring which included my house key, my car key, and the key to my office, at least one loose ten dollar bill, a cellphone charger, and a book. I suppose if you're going to be one of those pricks who likes to compare a loss like this to—I don't know—the Holocaust or children being raped by Catholic priests in order to 'put things in perspective,' then you're probably going to think this is no big flipping deal. After all, I'm not poor. Although I don't come home every night and roll around naked in money, sweet money, I can replace most of what I lost without too much hardship. But at the risk of sounding melodramatic, there's something else at stake here: some person out there doesn't recognize the mineness of my things—or I should say that he does recognize it, but he flouts the customs and laws of his culture just because he wants to sell an iPad for crack. (That's just my go-to motivation for theft of any kind, by the way.) I'm am going to allude to Plato's theory (via Socrates) of the social contract which stipulates that since we are aware of the laws of our nation (for the most part) and since we inherently derive certain benefits from living there, we are therefore bound—in an implicit contract—to observe and respect (within limits) the prohibitions of that nation. Of course, this argument is spurious in all kinds of ways, especially today—for example, to the extent that (1) many people lack the means to leave a given nation, (2) other people are kept in the dark about the laws they may break (consider the Stalinist Soviet Union as a for-instance here), and (3) (most relevantly) most of the livable space on this planet is defined as a nation with its own laws, many of which are fundamentally the same. (A law against recreational murder is one that comes to mind.) How can any person hope to flee all of the contracts that govern this planet at the insistence of his conscience?
But wait a minute here. Why am I discounting an argument (i.e., the implied contract that bound Socrates to Athens and to his own death sentence) that I am attempting to use rhetorically to establish my right to whine, bitch, and moan continuously about my purloined duffle bag? Maybe you wouldn't have noticed the vulnerabilities of the argument (not all of which are mentioned above) or would simply have taken my word for it without giving it much thought. I didn't want you to think my feelings about being robbed were just understandable—but rather that they were philosophically justifiable. But the more that I mull it over, the more I wonder why I even care what you think. I mean, who are you? Any person with internet access may possibly read this blog entry, including the thief. I didn't say it was likely, you understand. Only possible. And this momentous potentiality makes a fool of me. Here I am—employing shaky logic to convince (possibly) the thief that I have a right to be angry that my things were taken even though 'polite society' nags at us to be grateful for whatever scraps from the table of fortune that we're thrown. Listen to my dad's little riff on this attitude: he would often say, 'Once I was sad because I had no shoes, but then I met a man who had no feet.' Bullshit! This can regress infinitely until we have no right to complain ever—because for every lousy situation x, there's always a lousier situation x + 1. Whoohoo! Does this kind of relativism make people feel better? I can understand using it from time to time to get oneself out of a funk, but in what way does feeling grateful that I have feet preclude me from being sad I don't have shoes? Are my feet not frostbitten because I've hit the jackpot in comparison to the guy with stumps on the ends of his legs? No way.
Since this thread of the argument seems to be going nowhere, I'll just speak directly to the thief who is probably smoking the hell out of some crack on my dime in Santa Barbara, California. Since you're potentially out there, you can potentially experience a pang of conscience because you realize you've wronged me—and in so doing, all of society, which derives its relative stability and cohesiveness from the maintenance and enforcement of its laws. If you experience said pang of conscience, please notify me and we can arrange for the return of my things—and the restoration of the mineness to them. I know. It's ridiculous that I have to appeal to your sense of decency to give me back my stuff—as if I'm asking you for a favor—but this is what our world has come to... In order to sweeten the pot a little, I'll let you keep my underwear and my favorite comb if you help to preserve all of society by giving me back my shit!