The joy of owning crap stuff

It's not absolutely crap, it's relatively crap. And it's a liberating feeling.

I love my 2011 Volkswagen Polo; it’s crap. I’ve had it a few years so it’s grazed with the various dents, scratches, and stains accumulated in our time together. It often makes strange noises, but they usually disappear after a while. If it gets scratched again, or if something needs replacing, it won't bother me too much or drain my bank account, which feels liberating. It’s cheap to run, I own it outright, and it takes me from A to B.

All of this is to say that the car is not absolutely crap, it is relatively crap. Parking it next to shinier, newer cars I am occasionally seized by momentary but clamouring urges to replace it with a new one. Maybe I could save and buy one outright? Maybe I could lease? “Could I afford that car?” I’ll wonder, in a panic, when I walk past the others.

The urge always passes. While I’ve got more money now than when I first bought it, I ultimately don’t give a shit about cars. They don’t interest me beyond their utility. So where do these urges come from?

“Keeping up with the joneses” is one way to look at it. But I prefer a term I’ve only recently come across: mimetic desire. In his book Wanting, Luke Burgis surveys and explores the work of philosopher Rene Girard who first coined the term and explored the concept. Our desires are, more often than not, shaped by the desires of others who are our "models." (But what do our models want? It’s models all the way down, dear.)

We adopt models for everything: for what we wear, for the careers we choose, for the holidays we go on, the restaurants we go to, the houses we buy, the ways we raise our children, the music we listen to, et cetera, ad infinitum. There are also both positive and negative forms of mimetic desire.

Girard/Burgis argue that we model our desires passively, all the time, without ever explicitly interrogating them or the models that produce them. However, becoming aware of this phenomenon is one of those “once you see it” deals. You can’t unsee it, and it makes you rethink things you’d long taken for granted.

How we spend our money—whether it’s on a new car or not—is a good proxy for desire. Knowing what to spend our money on is, as I now understand it, a question of navigating one’s own personal mess of tangled and often conflicting desires. Or: knowing why you want the things you want is a skill. Or: knowing what you truly value is a skill. Or: knowing yourself is a skill. There is value in thinking critically about yourself, to reflect, to be honest.

If we don’t know why we want what we want, we’re more likely to spend money on stuff we don’t give a shit about while convincing ourselves and others, on the surface, that we do. This is as sure a path to unhappiness as any other. If I’d gone ahead and bought a new car with debt, or with a lease, or by saving money elsewhere, I’d be saddled with something I don’t care about, and I’d come to resent it.

The ebb and flow in popularity of the minimalism movement over the past decade feels, in retrospect, like a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective attempt to counter rampant consumerist over-consumption driven by mimetic desire. While it’s one thing deciding to want less, without an understanding of your own personal maze of models and desires you’re only tinkering at the edges and tamping things down.

An absolute commitment to minimalism also guarantees sadness. While we successfully cast out and refuse the things we don’t care about, without an understanding of our desires and models we risk doing the same with things that we do love and care about.

I deeply love entertaining, and cooking for others. I spend a lot of money on it whenever I do it, but that’s fine by me because I love it and it brings me enormous joy. This is life. So I fill my shopping cart with nice cookware, delicious food, and expensive wine, then put it all in my crap car and smile all the way home.

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