Do we keep or throw it away?

By Carol Walker


We are supposed to have a rule at our house regarding “stuff:” If something comes into the house, something must be taken out. In a house that is much less than a mansion, we don’t really have the luxury to add more and more stuff.

The fact that we have not exactly always kept that rule became apparent this spring as we began cleaning out closets and the storage area under the stairway. We knew we had to lighten the load.

I have heard the two main reasons we save items are: 1. We are worried we might need them some day, and; 2. Things may have a sentimental value connected to a special memory. We have probably all helped someone move and wondered, “Why are they keeping that particular thing?” Others may say the same thing about our saving habits.

There is something about owning things that changes our thinking. Researchers have found that when offered a choice between an iPod and $100, people will generally choose the money. However, if an iPod is given to them, and then if they are offered $100 for it, they will decline to give it up. This is called the endowment effect, what Brian Knutson of Stanford University calls “the poster child of strange (economic) behavior.”

While watching the brain with a neuro-imaging machine, scientists found that activity in a part of the brain that shows how much we like an object did not increase when the new iPod belonged to the person. However, activity did increase in another part of the brain that warns about possible loss. This study seemed to indicate we are more motivated by the fear of losing something than pure enjoyment of the item. Their caveat was that over time, a person may find real enjoyment of particular items, so thinking could change.

I have found it to be emotionally taxing to decide what to keep or discard. If the aforementioned research is true, I may not necessarily find enjoyment out of the stuff I have stored, but I may be afraid of losing it, and those items are a part of my history and the history of my family.

This came to mind as I was pondering the ruckus at Poet’s Table. Many know the history of the table, and how John Raeck placed it there 50 years ago to create a space for reflection and writing—not just for him, but for anyone who would happen upon the site. I think some people who visited that place of beauty in Custer State Park connected with it, and in a sense took ownership in their hearts. The table, cut in half and taken, and the associated items cleared away, seemed to be a travesty. If we follow the line of reasoning of the research, people fear the loss of a sense of history of that particular spot.

However, James Giago Davies, told a Rapid City Journal reporter that the Lakota think of this situation in an entirely different way.

“Many of us see that picnic table as a blight, not as an iconic piece of sentimentality,” said Davies. They associate that table with the illegal annexation of the Black Hills by the United States government. Hmmm. It’s worth pondering how our collective experience with places and things can determine our desire to keep or discard.

It makes me ask more questions such as, “Why do we want to preserve old buildings and other places of historic value?”  “Why do we celebrate special days such as Memorial Day?”  “Why do we erect monuments?” We want a visual memory of what has gone on before us. We don’t want to forget.

The memories we have are often very personal and create dilemmas such as mine, whether to keep or discard. When it comes to things like tables, buildings, monuments and special days, we are faced with the same thing—keep or discard.