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The Secret Lives of Our Possessions

The Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung defended the autonomy of things. Our possessions aren’t just here to do our bidding, he said, but have lives and feelings of their own. In the 1930s, at a conference in Ascona, he addressed our problems with rebellious objects: documents “hiding themselves,” “a pair of glasses seeking out a chair of a concealing pattern,” or devils that get into objects and “perform the most extraordinary stunts.”

Courtesy of Ann Arnold

“This book would like it very much better, I am sure,” Jung explained, “if it were lying near the center of the table where it is safe, but I have put it on the edge. It is an awkward position for that poor creature of a book. It may fall down and get injured. If I…touch (objects) in an awkward way, they take revenge.”

When Pots Rebel

Kitchen items are also capable of voicing their displeasure—something Jung noted in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. For much of his life, Jung enjoyed making simple, hearty meals at his lake house in Bollingen. In his later years, he was confined to bed while recovering from a serious illness. One morning, he awoke to a loud clanging. Jung immediately knew what was wrong. He put on his slippers and walked into the kitchen.

Valerie. Jung
Illustration by Ann Arnold

“I’ll be back with you soon,” he said to his favorite pot, “and we’ll make some good things together.” With that, the banging stopped.

In older cultures, people believed that ordinary objects were alive with energy and meaning. When we treat our possessions with respect and kindness, they become not just helpmates but talismans. In indigenous societies, an amulet or bowl can possess a kind of holiness or grace, transferring these powers to its owner, while Shinto Buddhists are apt to thank a plate or pair of shoes for their daily service. For centuries of human development this notion — called panpsychism — was the dominant belief. At least until Descartes separated thought (res cogitans) from matter (res extensa) and the rationalists put man at the top of the hierarchy, scoffing at the notion that animals and objects might have souls.

What are our shoes and salad plates thinking?

If you find yourself talking to the broom or to the egg-timer, don’t worry. It’s natural to see these familiar things as our companions. Jung was aware of the stress encountered by his possessions as he travelled by steamship, returning from a visit to America in 1906, and hit some stormy seas.

All-day, he was locked in his cabin, he wrote this amusing letter to his wife:

(As) the ship began to roll fearfully…the objects in my cabin (came) to life: the sofa cushion crawled about on the floor in semidarkness; a recumbent shoe sat up, looked around in astonishment and then shuffled quietly off under the sofa; a standing shoe turned wearily on its side and followed its mate. Now the scene changed. I realized that the shoes had gone under the sofa to fetch my bag and brief case. The whole company paraded over to join the big trunk under the bed. One sleeve of my shirt on the sofa waved longingly after them, and from inside the chests and drawers came rumbles and rattles. Suddenly there was a terrible crash …a rattling, clattering, and tinkling. One of the kitchens is underneath me. There, at one blow, five hundred plates had been awakened from their deathlike torpor and with a single bold leap had put a sudden end to their dreary existence as slaves.

Here we have an entire play with objects as lead actors. The shoes, shirts, and luggage take shelter from the roiling seas, while the plates imprisoned in the galley go to desperate lengths to secure their freedom.

Jung might have panicked at the condition of his stateroom or spent the afternoon feeling seasick, homesick, and generally glum. Instead, he enjoyed this form of theatre. At home, Jung paid homage to what he called “our little household gods.” The spirits that resided in everything from a garden hoe to a table to a humble salt shaker.

If you uncap your imagination, whole menageries may pop up in your living room. Your dining room chairs may decide to take off on their own adventures, and your lamps and lounge chairs become canny co-conspirators. You may even find something madcap in your collection of pots and pans, feather dusters, forks, and spatulas.

So take a moment and consider, Do your possessions have secret longings? Walter Mitty lives? What sweet consolations do they provide? And what mischief do they get up to when you close the door and walk away?

Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org
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Teresa Young
Teresa Young

This is a wonderful window into the mind of what I consider one of the most original and creative thinkers ever. Mischievous, mystical, life-giving, delightfully animating ideas. And so exquisitely written. Thank you, Valerie!

Laura Staley

What a delightful article, Valerie, that’s sings parts of the song I share with clients, participants in workshops, and many others. I recognize you’re honoring the perspective of Jung-and his view is very much aligned with the 3000 year old wisdom of feng shui. Everything contains energy-everything is alive with ch’i (energy)…the first principle of essential feng shui! Your essay got me thinking about the movies, Toy Story (all three of them) and Beauty and the Beast because the inanimate toys and physical objects all came to life. Why wouldn’t they? :)

This is why I call the unused belongings, the no longer loved items, the not ever loved hand-me-down clutter in our spaces-The Unloved Ones. They are lonely-maybe grieving as they long to interact with the human beings who stashed them somewhere. Maybe they find other Unloved Ones, sing, dance, and play together while the humans are out and about shopping for even more items to join that party. That goat bra in the garage that was on sale even if it’s never lifted or separated the teats of a goat-maybe that item does the salsa or the tango at the party with the vacation spoons collected from all over the world. :)

Thank you for this wonderful romp into the imagination, for asking the questions! I’m singing in the alto section while dancing the waltz with the book that enjoys being held in my hands and these ideas shared here. I’m still smiling.

Laura Mikolaitis

Valerie, I enjoyed reading this article. It has a whimsical sense to it and does make you think about your surroundings at home. From a favorite piece of furniture to a pot in the kitchen, I suspect they all have stories to tell. I’m always sad when I have to retire a kitchen pot or pan as we love to cook. But, then I think about the new stories we can write with a new member of the family. Of course, cast iron is our favorite, and they can tell endless stories about being the leading character in our cooking endeavors.

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