Skip to content

Death Made Me Materialistic

You can’t take it with you. Enjoy it now.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
Death Made Me Materialistic

Even if you haven't had a brush with death or loss yet, you probably know what you're expected to learn from such a thing:

  • life is short,
  • don't waste a minute,
  • tell people you love them,
  • time to straighten out your "priorities."

Straightening out one's priorities in light of mortality has its own commonly-assumed unpacking. You're almost certainly:

  • too concerned with work,
  • too concerned with money,
  • and, by extension, too concerned with your stuff.

But, as They warn, possessions are actually more curse than blessing! If you've been allowing possessions to distract you from what's Really Important in life, stop yesterday. Stop it right now.

My awakening to mortality

Well, I had that brush with death. I've now been there and done that.

As I've been writing about nearly incessantly, my not-terribly-old, otherwise-reasonably-healthy father randomly fell ill with incurable cancer mid-2018. He spent a total of 10 months being treated then dying.

My dad's illness and death could have been way worse, in many ways, but the whole thing was still plenty bad. Watching this happen and thinking about it night and day changed me, it changed me through and through.

But my experience has not conformed to the mortality-reaction narrative. For one thing, I'm now working more than I have in years (albeit at a different kind of work).

And, frankly, since my dad got sick I've been into owning things more than ever. Death made me materialistic.

How I learned to buy good things

I used to be one of those people who refused to buy anything nice at full sticker price (while collecting random junk from clearance tables and buy-one-get-one sales, of course).

When I did occasionally splurge on something better than my usual clearance table fare (like mid-range clothing or makeup), I usually let it collect dust while I "saved" it for later rather than enjoy it right then. You know how that ends: the makeup dries out, the clothes fall out of fashion. It's maybe better to be a dedicated minimalist or a name-brand snob than to be a disorganized, unprincipled spender - the worst of all worlds.

When I started making frequent trips to see my dad, I started collecting things for the road: clothes like $75 leggings that fit my 2-under-2 postpartum body, squishy socially-conscious $15/pair socks, an expensive convertible "studio bag." A backpack that opens like a suitcase. Machine-washable shoes, and again.

I found this stuff via the online ads people say they hate, especially Instagram's. I loved all of these things. I'm still using them.

You can tell a version to this story according to which I bought stuff in a misguided attempt to distract myself from life's difficulties. But I explicitly reject that version. I have spent a year and a half absolutely wallowing in life's difficulties. I live and breathe existential unease. There is no reason at all to think that's actually what happened, except for it's a trope.

Instead, having nice stuff simply made me feel a little better along that horrible road. Having good things doesn't make you good. But it doesn't make you bad, either.

Experiences vs. Things

We've been told a billion times by the happiness hackers: "buy experiences, not things." The idea isn't exactly wrong. But if you look closely, you'll see that there is no clear line to be found between "experiences" and "things" at all.

On the one hand, people all too often treat experiences as if they were collectible objects: to be displayed on social media and checked off a list instead of, well, experienced.

On the other hand, the right objects are also experience-makers. Books invite intellectual and emotional experiences. A plush and beautiful fleecy sweatshirt can keep you comfortable for thousands of hours during its lifespan. Nice makeup offers a pick-me-up, one trapping of my old pre-kids life that I can still access even on days when I never leave home. My dumb kitchen gadgets really do allow me to throw together healthy dinners with the rugrats underfoot.

You can't take it with you

Am I telling you to go into debt? No.

Do I think the meaning of life consists in acquisition? Certainly not.

Do you literally need an air fryer? Nope.

Am I telling you to buy that fucking air fryer? A million times yes.

We hear over and over that you should care less about things - but there many ways to fail to hit the mean. Some people care too much about stuff. But others may very well not care enough, or (likelier) in the right ways.

My dad was a relatively frugal man, the most conventionally conscientious member of our family by a long shot. He stalked model cars and slot cars like elusive prey, occasionally adding one to his prized, ferreted-away collection.

One of the last things my dad ever did while in his mostly-right mind was to hop online and order a few of the very best, nicest slot cars in existence. By the time they arrived from France or whatever, dad had mostly left the building.

You can't take it with you. Enjoy it now.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.