Stuff and Metastuff

One thing I’ve realized in the recent move up to San Francisco is that I have a lot of Stuff. I don’t think I’d have noticed if moving into an empty apartment–all my Stuff only filled 2 cars–but since I’m moving temporarily into a room that’s already furnished and decorated, all my stuff is basically Extra Stuff that I’m struggling to fit anywhere.

My books don’t fit on the shelves, my clothes don’t fit on the racks, my guitars don’t fit in the corner, and finding somewhere appropriate to display my special beer glass collection is a hopeless luxury.

Being confronted with such constrains has got me thinking about how much Stuff I own in general. My footprint is probably relatively small compared to most of the people I interact with regularly. But when I think about much of the world, whose Stuff could be wrapped in a blanket and slung over a shoulder… well, I’ve got a lot. And let me tell you, it’s hard to be mobile with 2 large bookcases full of books, never mind the ones that got relegated to storage!

On the other hand, my situation could be unique even for Americans, given that I probably have more Kinds of Stuff than most people. I’m not just into books, but music and film, so there go 5 or 6 boxes just for CDs and DVDs. I’m not just into playing musical instruments (adding 5 guitars, a keyboard, and a trumpet to the mix) but into recording, so chalk one box up to computer interfaces and cables, another for mics, and then there’s the oddly-shaped mic stands… And I could keep going–I have 4 large backpacks filled with all kinds of climbing, backpacking, frisbee and snowboarding gear.

In short, if you take away my hobbies, you take away the Stuff. I’m not sure if this is the case for most people or not. But as I have an abnormally large number of hobbies, so I have this abnormally large number of Kinds of Stuff. And, with the exercise of trying to fit a lot of stuff into a small space as the perfect (perhaps ironic) metaphor, I wonder about how and why I’ve decided to cram all these pursuits into the finite space of my life. That’s what I’d call Metastuff.

I suppose answering the Metastuff question for me is the same as answering the question of why I’ve chosen to pursue many things at once rather than focus on one thing (as most people seem able / resigned to do). It’s a question I wrestle with on an intense and daily basis, and it creates a profound ambiguity at the core of who I am which I’ve talked about plenty of times before.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind being put in a situation with my Metastuff that mirrors the one I’ve been put into with my Stuff. If life narrowed, I’d be forced to discard some Metastuff, forced to come to terms with the fact that not all of it fits. Perhaps such a pruning process would lead to greater fruitfulness! Or perhaps it would just make me depressed. But one thing I’m pretty sure of: I’m not going to do it myself.

We talk a lot about how we Americans or Westerners have a disproportionate amount of Stuff. So maybe I’m more profoundly Western than I realized, with all this Metastuff. Maybe a superfluity of Metastuff (or Opportunity or Potential or Choice) is relatively new in the West, even. But maybe we should talk more about it, too.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

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