Monday, June 21, 2021

That's immaterial: Reflections on material possessions

I shall get something out of the way.  No, the takeaway from this write-up is not that there are myriad little pleasures in life that money can’t buy.  While it is certainly a laudable line of thinking, I choose to delve a little deeper into the topic of material possessions than resort to the convenience of a noble thought.  Truth and reality are more complex and multilayered than nobility. 

Cars.  Watches.  Sunglasses.  Fountain pens.  Shirts.  These are, in no particular order, some of the material possessions that I derive great joy from.  I take great care in ensuring that they are well-maintained and despite my butter fingers (my ‘dropped’ phones will narrate a tragic tale if you ask them), I rarely, if ever, misplace or scratch the items on this list.  I have, more than once, been completely enamored with something that I have seen online or in a store that I subsequently take considerable effort saving up money for. (This has happened quite often with watches.) Despite the objects being seemingly inanimate, they seem to acquire a magical life of their own.  They make me smile, feel good about myself and add a spring in my stride.  The painstaking process of refilling ink in a fountain pen, testing its quality on a notepad, the winding of an automatic watch.  These little routines never come across as chores to me because I enjoy the process inside out.  Sample this.  I recently bought a pen since I thought that it had a faint resemblance to the one used by Kamal Hassan in the movie, "Indian."  And I wrote “Indian” in Tamil to test it out, the way Kamal signs off Nedumudi Venu’s petition for the thamarai pattayam!

All of this might sound sunny and heady.  But the catch here is that we don’t live in an island by ourselves.  We don’t live in a world where we just admire our own possessions.  Deep down, to some degree, we seek validation of our choices.  I am sure there are exceptions so, let me speak for myself instead of generalizing.  I do enjoy genuine compliments.  As much as I experience tremendous intrinsic happiness from material possessions, I do smile when someone recognizes an effort that I may have put into color-coordinate a watch and a shirt. (Yes, I do spend some time on stuff like that!) What I have realized over time is that if I derive even a wee bit of sunshine from external validation, I must be equally prepared for the darkness that stems from sarcasm, meanness and negativity.

Let me begin by saying that I am sure I have come across as sarcastic or hurtful.  I am sure that I have said something about a person’s taste or choices of clothing or accessories that have hurt them.  As I have grown older, it is my sincere hope that I have become a kinder person, one who is not averse to taking feedback and course correcting.  I do think that conversations around material possessions are dicey territory.  I have been blindsided on a few occasions by comments that I perceived to be completely unwarranted and hurtful.  People can get so passionate about an object of their liking that they can give off the vibe that if you don’t subscribe to that thought, that your choices are subpar.  My Uncle once shared this Latin phrase, “De gustibus non est disputandum.”  It means that matters of taste should not be disputed.  Easy to say - I mean, it's not easy to pronounce but you know what I mean! -  but hard to implement, correct?

To me, the X standard (I would say "gold" but please fill in the gem or stone of your choice) for someone acting with true ‘class’ was my maternal grandpa’s best friend, Mr. Sivasailam.  My grandpa was a middle-class bank employee, completely contented man who lived life on his own terms.  Sivasailam Mama was an industrialist who headed a large group of companies.  I have witnessed first-hand the grace with which he carried himself.  The socioeconomic differences between them existed on paper, not once besmirching the exquisitely woven fabric of their friendship.  Whenever Mama bought a new car, he would take us all for a drive, even taking the time to explain to a kid like me the new features of the car.  I would look at it all with wide-eyed wonder.  Now, my wide-eyed wonder is a result of introspecting on how he never once made me or anyone in my family feel ‘lesser’ in any way.  In a utopian world, everybody would be like him.  Alas, we don’t live in one.

While we don’t live in islands by ourselves, we can create small mental islands where only a select few are allowed in.  These are the ones with whom we must share the joys that we experience from anything material (or intangible, for that matter).  We also owe it to the people whom we invite to our islands to feel psychologically safe enough to share their own sources of pleasure, whatever they may be.  Above all, to make them feel like they have the privilege to push back and question our choices.  I remember a well-meaning Uncle of mine telling me in no uncertain terms to not buy a car that I was eyeing.  He told me that I should act more prudently.  Not only did I heed his advice – I ended up buying that car 11 years later – but I am thankful for the fact that when I finally ‘earned’ it (after saving up a little more like he advised me to), the ‘success’ tasted sweeter.  If we create these little spaces in our mind with a select few with whom we feel safe, we immunize ourselves to any hurt that anyone else could cause us.  And if someone whom we consider as part of our trusted circle ends up hurting us repeatedly, we can then alert ourselves to answer the question of whether they merit(ed) inclusion in the circle in the first place.

One bit of advice that I have received (from Professor Sheena Iyengar, author of “The Art of Choosing”) that I never tire of repeating is, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  It applies to the number of people we choose to include in our trusted circle, the ones with whom we share any highs that we may derive from the things we achieve, items we buy, etc.  There is a certain amount of respect that we all earn by wearing not only our learnings but also our earnings lightly.  I have seen my grandpa’s friend live his life in a way where his relationships and his acquisitions co-existed peacefully without markedly encroaching each other’s territory.  By genuinely respecting the people around him, the value of his asset that was genuine class appreciated till the very end of his life, and beyond.  I suppose that when someone loves her or his loved ones so thoughtfully, whether or not they also love material possessions…well, that’s immaterial!



RM said...

From Viveka Parasuram:

Such an honest write-up. I do agree that material possessions give me joy as well but at the end of the day, I need honest and genuine people in my circle of trust. If people make snide remarks and are haughty, it just means that they aren’t in that circle anymore(or never were in that circle). I have taken a long time to realize that but once I realized it, there is no looking back.

Zola said...

"People can get so passionate about an object of their liking that they can give off the vibe that if you don’t subscribe to that thought, that your choices are subpar."

Wah Wah !

There is much "material" here for reflection

I always like to read this genre (The appropriate word escapes me) of articles from you a few times. Otherwise I miss gems like the following :

"We also owe it to the people whom we invite to our islands to feel psychologically safe enough to share their own sources of pleasure"

RM said...

Thank you so much, Zola.

RM said...

Thanks a lot, Viveka.

Anu Warrier said...

Hmm... some nice thoughts here (and a shared love for fountain pens - I like watches, but I still wear the one that my father bought me when I was 12) and a little sainthood. :) But I promised that I wouldn't call you by that dread name any more, so I will bite my tongue and be nice. :) :)

Thanks for sharing, Ram. I enjoyed reading it. Truly.

Ram Murali said...

"and a little sainthood. :) But I promised that I wouldn't call you by that dread name any more, so I will bite my tongue and be nice. :) :)"
--> LOLOLOLOL! Your comment reminds me of a hilarious Vivekh joke in "ey nee romba azhaga iruke":
Shaam is getting ready to leave the apartment.
Vivekh: "Dey 'enga pore'-nu kaekardhu abasagunam-nu enaku theriyum! Aana, nee enga pore-nu therinjuka "enga da pore"-ngaradha thavira enna kaekka mudiyum!"
Shaam: "Idhuku nee 'enga pore'-ne kaeturkalaam!"
:) :) :)

But thanks for reading and responding, Anu!