Last night I was going to eat peanut butter out of the jar – what? I’m a guy – and found myself rifling through the cutlery drawer in search of a particular spoon that I wanted. The jumble of mismatched silverware at the Fortress of Solitude reflects the fact that I don’t entertain much, and when I do, it’s usually with finger foods and an emphasis on drinks. So the spoon I was looking for, and eventually found, was one that I’ve used many times in the past for this purpose, and have become accustomed to.
Aside from my (questionable) bachelor eating habits however, the search for the spoon at the end of my day was strangely mirrored by a search I had gone through that very morning, through the silk and wool jungle undergrowth I call a tie rack. I was looking for a tie in a particular shade of blue, to contrast with the gingham shirt I intended to wear to the office, and ended up having to take every tie off the rack until I found it. Yet there was never any question, to my mind, that the tie in question was the one I had to wear that particular day, any more than my protein overload later that night was going to take place using one particular spoon, or not at all.
Why do we give inanimate objects this kind of power over us? Would the peanut butter have tasted any different had it been eaten with another spoon? Or would my shirt have been spoiled by wearing a different, but perfectly acceptable tie from the one I had intended?
Psychologists tell us that children with Asperger’s Syndrome can develop rigid fixations on particular objects, which help them to find a sense of order in the universe. When the object which they feel is critical to the completion of some task or activity is unavailable, they may become inconsolable or withdrawn. This is behavior which can be observed even among children who do not suffer from Asperger’s: one thinks of the character Linus from the “Peanuts” comics, for example, and his security blanket.
As adults, despite all of our supposed sophistication and wisdom gained from leaving childhood behind, we can all point to certain objects we possess which we associate with a feeling of continuity in our lives. It may be a shirt we consider “lucky”, because we wore it on the day we met that certain someone for the first time. Or it might be a certain box, where we keep ephemera like concert tickets or birthday cards.
However the real power of these otherwise ordinary objects is not intrinsic to the objects themselves. Destroy them, and you do not destroy the self, any more than you destroy what such objects represent, unperceived though that meaning may be to the untrained eye. Rather, their power lies in their ability to transform us, something which, maybe without even realizing it, we are the ones granting them the ability to do. You won’t love your grandmother the less if you accidentally smash the dish she left you in her will, or ruin your marriage when you burn a hole in that favorite chair you bought on your honeymoon – although there may be other consequences, in that instance.
What matters in such cases is the good that these objects lead us to do, whether it is enjoying a simple pleasure, recalling someone dear to us, or serving as a reminder of what matters in our lives, and the goals we are striving toward. So yes, the peanut butter would taste just as good with a different spoon, and the shirt would have looked just as well with a different tie. As long as I recognize the fact that I’m the one who gives them their significance, then I will be sure to keep things in perspective.
Now where are my Superman socks…