While my father taught me much over the years, the one lesson that stands out perhaps more than others is that we shouldn’t be overly attached to material possessions. Such attachment can even endanger our lives.
Despite this firm belief, which he clung to for most of his long years on this earth (like all ordinary mortals) — he did harbor contradictions in this department.
When Dad was 90, I helped him move in with us. He had lived in The Bronx, New York, for 43 years, from the very day he arrived in America from Europe. He insisted on maintaining his one-bedroom apartment overlooking the great expanse of Van Cortlandt Park, calling it his “headquarters.” He fought fiercely for his independence until the very end — but when you are in your ninth decade some things can’t be helped.
During our packing adventure I found an odd, minuscule pencil when I emptied the contents of his desk drawer. It was no more than half an inch long and sharpened at both ends. I was about to toss it, but he said, “No, you can’t throw that out!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I want to show it to the grandchildren as a lesson in ‘waste not, want not,'” he said. He added, “Why waste all those trees to make more pencils? This one still writes.”
My father tried to persuade them of the dangers of staying. They all refused to go.
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It was at this moment that I discovered the conservationist in him and the fact that he actually had reasons to hang onto a few things — very few. I realized this years ago when my children discovered my father’s lunch bag. They wondered what it was. It had been an ordinary paper lunch bag once, but its exterior was crumpled and smoothed so many times, it looked ancient.
“Why are you keeping it?” they asked me.
The answer was similar to his reason for keeping the pencil. He must have reused the same bag for a couple of years. It wasn’t until I was old enough to understand his and my family’s history that I understood his deeper meaning of how he went in the other direction — and refused to have strong emotional attachment to objects or to possessions.
We all have that special something we’d rather not release. Could be a baby rattle our grandmother bought, for example. We may be 40 or 50, but it still brings her image to mind, along with a slight whiff of her lavender sachet. Or a Purple Heart your uncle earned in combat. You keep it even though you never actually met him, but it meant so much to your father. Fair enough. Some things must stay. But in America, we are more acquisitive than citizens of most countries and many of us get very attached to our things.
In the last four decades, our home sizes have increased 38 percent — even though family size has not increased. Why? In large measure, this has been to accommodate all the stuff we buy. And buying has become a pastime for anyone with a computer or a smartphone, which is 68 percent of us, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. With the exponential growth of online retailing, we can sit at our computers or twiddle with our phones, happily browse dozens of sites — and all we have to do is click. Presto! A new thing arrives at our door without the slightest effort.
Some of us use it for a brief time, then dump it if it’s just a tad damaged. Fix it or clean it? Why bother? A new one is as far away as our fingertips. Others do something different, but with a creepy twist. No, they don’t throw it away. They save it, on top of a pile of similar “thneeds,” as Dr. Seuss so aptly named them. If you have ever read “The Lorax” to your children, you’ve met Once-ler, who made huge quantities of thneeds — things no one needs. He was simply responding to high demand.
Neither the hoarders nor many of us can resist the magnetic force of Amazon, Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Best Buy — you name it. More than half (51 percent) of U.S. consumers now shop online and 63 percent of millennials do it by smartphone, as The Wall Street Journal reported. These striking numbers don’t even include results on the new drone delivery trends. We want more things, and faster.
A small number of shoppers turn into hoarders, unable to dispose of anything they buy. Ever wonder why shows like “Clean House,” A&E’s “Hoarders,” and TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” were such big cable hits? It may be that the devils of extreme acquisition lurk in many of us. The American Psychological Association estimates that 2 to 5 percent of us can fall victim to a hoarding obsession. That can be as many as 16 million of us!
Think about it: In the pre-internet commerce era, less than two decades ago, one would have to get into a car and drive to a mall or a department store to look for things. And finding those things in the different departments wasn’t always a simple task. Thus, our haul most likely resulted in fewer things. It’s astonishing when we realize that it took 65 years to go from the first shopping mall in 1930 (Highland Park Shopping Village in Dallas, Texas) to the first book being sold on Amazon in 1995 — but only 10 years for retailers to announce the first Cyber Monday, unleashing the shopping madness commencing on the first Monday after Thanksgiving.
On average, Americans change cellphones every 18 months. If we need a newer model of a cellphone, do we wonder where the materials that go into its making — lead, mercury, and cadmium — end up? If you are like most people, the answer is probably not.
There are circumstances in which extreme attachment to things can cost a life. Such was the case with my father’s family. In 1939, when the Nazi hordes invaded Poland, most of my father’s relatives thought it crazy to run away. “What about our homes?” they asked. “We can’t leave the dishes, the silverware, the hand-embroidered linens, the candlesticks.”
My father tried to persuade them of the dangers of staying. They all refused. He ran, stole across the border to the Soviet Union, and survived. Not clinging to his things saved his life. His entire family perished. After the war, he rebuilt his life from scratch — much as the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters do. Things can be replaced.
Annette Libeskind Berkovits is the author of “In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism.” She is the retired senior vice president of education at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.