On the Nature and Meaning of Things

Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.

~Albert Einstein~

My new space is smaller than my old one. Some things had to go. For the most part, decisions were fairly easy. Having retired as a psychologist, many of my psychological trappings became expendable. Books, tests and files headed for the library sale or to the trash. Would I need any of these in the future? Possible, but not likely.

I left most of my monastic effects behind long ago and gradually divested myself of the rest one by one over the years. All that remains is my Latin dictionary and Psalter from which I once chanted. When I wrote a memoir about my seminary life, I wished I had kept my writings for reference but I managed without them, relying instead on the kind assistance and steel trap memory of my good friend Gerry.

I have kept a few books from my psychology days: a diagnostic manual, two books on personality types and a few volumes on practical wisdom. I had a twinge of regret parting with some of the others. Then it occurred to me that anything I need in the future will most likely be available on the Internet or through inter-library loan.

What else did I keep? My computer and some of my furniture made the trip. So did my published columns and books, writing and publishing references and art materials. My plants also came in out of the cold for the winter.

As I sit on the couch, I can see everything of importance to me, together in one space for the first time in my life. I find this comforting. So what do my things mean to me? The ones I brought give me a sense of continuity with my past and memories to guide me into the future.

My move gave me the opportunity to consider the meaning of the things which follow us through life until we decide to let them go. I once read a saying, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” I realized this was quite childish. We can die clinging to things we valued during our lives. No matter how tightly we cling to them, they don’t accompany us to the next phase of our existence beyond the grave. They all pass to our loved ones or end up in a garage sale or the trash.

Our things are the least of our legacy. More important is how we have lived and the impression our lives have left on those touched by knowing us. I try to keep this in mind on a daily basis.

Action Steps

  • Look around to see what things surround you.
  • Consider the memories attached to each of them.
  • Which of your things connect you to people you care about the most?
  • Tell special people what they mean to you.
  • Think about what you would like as your legacy.

Selection from Dr. Langen’s book,  Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage