It usually starts off in childhood – rather, it almost always starts off in childhood. How it ends up, of course, is an entirely different matter.
The Collection Begins
Some parents get their children into the fun world of collecting to give them something to preoccupy their time. I suppose you could say that if your children are spending more time sorting and arranging their collection of whatever it is they collect, they will spend less time coming to you with pleas of boredom. Boredom, of course, being a word that has been largely absent from my vocabulary for most of my life – but that’s a different article for a different day.
My father started my brother and I with our very own stamp collections when we were children. Really, if you think about it, out of everything in the world there is to collect, stamps are pretty high in terms of versatility. Not only do stamps cover a near infinite spread of subjects, they do so in only a couple of inches of space on paper.
The only problem with stamps, as was found out soon enough, is that you have to have some kind of interest in stamps to collect them. My brother and I lost interest not too long after being introduced to them and I wouldn’t really regain interest at all until years later.
Once the interest of collecting is planted in some people, it sprouts wildly out of control. Whereas some people limit the things that they collect to only a couple of different things, other people have a rainbow of collecting interests which ends up sprawled all over their living space.
I saw an episode of the home/lifestyle makeover program Queer Eye (they abandoned the “for the Straight Guy” part of the show name when they started helping people that were not one or the other) where they were helping a family whose father figure was, to put it mildly, an uncontrolled packrat. This was a person who had multiple collections – dead animals, arcade machines, statues of alien figures based on the artwork of HR Giger – you name it, he probably had it somewhere.
Curiously enough, the man was also a huge fan of monster truck shows. The episode ended with one of his own trucks (a non-functioning truck, mind you) which was full of a bunch of his things that his family helped him select being destroyed by his favorite monster truck. I imagine to some degree that must have been terrifying and yet at the same time, somewhat of a relief.
A few years ago when I was still living in the most beautiful city in the world (to me, that is – and that city of course happens to be New York) I started collecting bears from Starbucks. I suppose to some extent I have always been a sucker for cute things.
The problem was that Starbucks kept on putting out new bears every few months and that meant that I kept on getting more and more of them. Then at some point Barnes and Noble decided they wanted to have their very own collectible bear and after one particularly depressing date I decided that I had to have him as well.
There’s the really destructive word right there – had to have the bear. Did I really have to have the bear? No, of course I didn’t. I could have lived perfectly well without getting the bear, but I felt that it was a necessity. The bear was looking at me needingly and I looked back and just couldn’t resist. Other bears were soon to follow.
This all went on and on until about a year ago or so when I realized that I was being overrun in bears! I made the painful decision that I really had to stop with the collecting of bears and I haven’t looked back since then. It hasn’t pained me as much as I thought that it would and it certainly has saved me a lot of money and space. There are some bears that I have found myself selling when I realized that I hadn’t really looked at said bear since I first purchased it. Quite a strong realization that was.
The Problem With Completionism
Collecting by itself can be good and fun but as with the bears, it became a bit of a bear (sorry) once the issue of completionism came into play. I wasn’t just getting bears because I necessarily liked the bears. I was getting the bears because I already had #34, 35, and 36, so it seemed wrong not to have #37.
There are certain fast food restaurants that encourage completionistic behavior by releasing sets of toys with their food in increments and then encouraging people to try to get every single one. This was at its utter worst about 11 years ago when one restaurant had 101 dog collectable toys (they represented a certain children’s movie – can you guess which?) and they strongly encouraged people to try to get every single last one of them.
The girl I was dating at the time told me not to get her any unless I was prepared to help her get them all. I was not, so I opted out of getting any. This kind of behavior is further encouraged by video games such as Pokemon, in which the actual slogan of the game is “Gotta Catch’Em All!” I wrote a one line parody of their theme music – “You have to catch every single one – otherwise, it’s not much fun! Pokemon!” Imagine how hard I would come down on the game if I weren’t personally trying to catch every single one.
This fantastic world of complete collecting is certainly not limited to children. When Pearl Jam first started releasing all of their concerts on CD they very nicely numbered the spines of the cd sleeves. To anyone else this might seem like a logical way to keep track of distinct concerts – but wouldn’t the date be enough? This to me smacked of encouraging a complete set and indeed, at one point a few years ago I was quite obsessed with getting all of the releases.
I have since relaxed on that front and have just enjoyed the music that I already have. The same thing used to be the case with films. I am pretty sure that it’s no coincidence that the company is called “The Criterion Collection” and that they carefully make sure you know the catalog number of all of their DVDs, making some hard to find.
I started buying DVDs in 1997, before I even had a decent player to play the DVDs and it took only 9 years before I realized that I was going overboard. I started purging my collection like a madman, selling DVDs that I had purchased years earlier and had never opened. What was I thinking when I spent my money on these little boxes, I wondered. I must have been thinking – I had to have them all. Of course, I was wrong.
I humbly submit the fact that after getting only four of a set of five collectible drinking glasses from a recent animated film, I made no effort to get the last one because it simply didn’t interest me. That has got to be some kind of improvement.
The Impact of Katrina and Other Catastrophes
I think that one of the things that woke me up to the reality of the weight of the need to collect so many things was when I was watching the news and saw stories about how people lost absolutely everything they had when their homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Decades, if you could just imagine it, of collecting all destroyed in the matter of a few days.
How crushed the people who lost their collections must have been. Then I started thinking – what if there was a fire? What would I take if I could only take an armful of things. There would unfortunately be only my tefillin, three principal bear survivors, a laptop, and any of the more sacred texts I have. Then there is the trouble of moving. I think if I had a lot less stuff – say, enough to fit in my Volvo, I probably wouldn’t even live here anymore. What does that say about the way I’m living right now? Do my things control me?
Don’t let your things control you.
Don’t let your “need” to have every single whatever control your life to the point that you spend every waking moment of your life going after more of that thing. You don’t want to be the person who has to be rescued by the police because you are trapped in by your things.
There are limits that can be set – but you have to be the one to set those limits.