Every time I pass people on the street, if I still pass people that is, they are talking about the same thing: the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems to be top of mind for everyone. People living across from me singing and playing instruments on the balcony in solidarity during the lockdown. It is a delight to listen to. It is also amazing to observe how people find a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety or insanity.
Right now, for my son and I, life feels ominous but semi-normal here in Vienna, Austria. My workplace shut down, Kindergarten and schools are closed as of today. Everything else is closed, too. Except for pharmacies and supermarkets. We avoid big public groups, including movie theaters, museums, book fairs, and all those good things. Now, playgrounds are closed. To make this craziness complete, I pinched a nerve in my lower back and can barely move. Very, very painful. But I guess it is better to stay inside anyway. We bought a couple extra boxes of pasta, beans, cereal, rice, and such things. We are greeting people with elbow taps or waves, instead of hugs and cheek kisses. I’m assuming that, in days or weeks, things will continue to tighten up. “Cancel everything,” says an Atlantic headline. “The bottom line: It is going to get worse,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It’s a very strange and scary feeling to helplessly wait to see what will happen. Will subways shut down? Will we mostly be staying home and just go to the store to buy more food? Besides tons of reading, writing and watching movies, we are using all this time to clean, rearrange, and declutter our apartment. Going through my things made me realize how unimportant most of the stuff is. How little we actually need. But, am I my stuff? What is stuff? How many bars of soaps and hand sanitizer should one own in this COVID-19 madness? As much as I usually appreciate a precise word, there is something satisfyingly vague about it. You can hate or love stuff. My stuff revolves around me like false confidence. Just like stuff, who I am changes depending on the context. My material possessions function more like additional information than a definition. I got rid of a lot of stuff today. That was before the pinched nerve.
But what about the human habit of defining ourselves by what we buy, which is a pressing issue in these Corona-days. Since the internet is our primary means of connection, we are sort of forced to perform ourselves online so that others can understand us quickly and in the ways, we would like. In this sense, we have become hyper-focused on what our stuff says about us. And who we can be if it changed. Who would I be if I had different stuff? When I accumulate more stuff or pare it down, do I change?
For me, those shifts temporarily transform how I feel, but I am not sure I myself am any different. If I throw out all my furniture, even though it is still great, and replace it with new stuff, I am still the same person. I am just me, with maybe better taste, a new cool leather couch, or less junk. But neither of those really inform who I am at my core. Guess what? I am very uncomfortable at the moment and in a lot of pain and a new leather couch would suck.
We are nuanced and mercurial creatures with desires and fears so deep and huge we can’t always express them. That is when stuff can help. Now go and buy that face-mask if it makes you happy. It can tell a story about our inner worlds that’s tangible, fragile and simple. Or show how scared we really are about this damn virus. It can help us draw conclusions about each other without sitting down for an hour and spilling our guts. Ideally, our stuff is informed by our values, too. It can reassure us of who we are, or bring us together because he/she likes that thing, too. That is not nothing, my friends. It is the power of non-verbal expression. When we are seen and known on a deeper level by the people around us and by ourselves or feel that way about others, I think stuff has a way of disappearing into the background, of becoming something we poke around in on our way to and from something, but never the destination itself.
In the end, the math isn’t simple, but it’s clear enough to me. Stuff is additive, occasionally helpful and comforting, but it isn’t everything. Not in these crazy times and not ever. Look at how a virus can transform the world into great chaos. Who cares about that $900 purse you bought last week. It is a medium with limits. It’s a response to who you are, not who you are. And when we equate those two things or invert them, I think we risk losing sight of the fact that stuff is often the least interesting thing about us. Think about it. Think about what is really important. It is important to be prepared. It is important not to freak out and to rather stay calm. And, for me, to be able to move again and take care of this little person who follows me for the last six years. These days, it is better to stay inside, wash hands one more time so we can hopefully move on and get back to “normal”.