In Disagreement, Where Can We Turn?

Family, friends, and other trusted people often serve as back-ups to parts of ourselves we hope to return to. They are our satellite campuses, our branch libraries, our outposts in wildernesses where we do not often go.

The other day I posted a screed on social media by a dead political writer, about a long-dead politician, a man so crooked in life that the corruption of the grave means little. One of my oldest acquaintances, back in the Reagan-Bush era a close friend and roommate, chose to take the post personally. He left an angry meme directed at both writer and me: “A generation taught to hate our country will refuse to defend it.” It was a non sequitur in all ways except the emotion that indicated some hidden trigger.

As the nation continues down the path of mutual unintelligibility, we often hear, in puzzlement: Why do they talk/act/think that way? The degree of hurt indicates we feel betrayed, violated, as if they had destroyed some part of us. And maybe they have, in an act of personal (and sometimes unintentional) treason, a declaration of independence from us and what we believe and abide.

Research shows that when some feel lonely and socially alienated, they turn to what cannot betray so easily: stuff. “Seeking safe relationships in the marketplace,” they even find love.

Truly, Madly, Deeply: Consumers in the Throes of Material Possession Love,” by John L. Lastovicka and Nancy J. Sirianni, says the origin of material possession love, as with other kinds of love, “lies in our profound need to value, to find things in the world which we can care for [and] reflects an urge to form attachments but also recognizes the need to nurture the beloved….”

“[L]ove-smitten consumers may be found nurturing their beloved possessions [in order to] to further enhance those objects. As this may involve buying complementary products and services, such nurturing can have substantial commercial value.”

The scholars say things with moving parts, such as cars, trucks, and guns, especially trigger a response in some consumers by “visceral design, meaning designs that do what nature does when eliciting biologically prewired emotive reactions.”

Consumers offer up “their time, energy, and financial resources, or otherwise of themselves, to foster beloved possessions and their relationships with such objects” to satisfy the “three components of love, namely, passion, intimacy, and commitment.” The guy who already owns 39 guns might buy those guns another gun.

“[O]ur statistical findings report that gun owners in romantic love [with their guns] spent on average six times more on their gun in a year relative to other gun owners. Whether the smitten are acquiring more items or are more willing to pay premium prices—or both—is not clear.”

My last post was about an original American patriotism that believed in not consuming, as part of one’s duty to self and republic. After the Industrial Revolution began, and certainly after the Civil War, American patriotism turned to consumption as both duty and pleasure.

It is not an original thought that, in a socially- and geographically-mobile country, where jobs, schools, and military posts are far-flung from families and hometowns, possessions became a fill for the void of loneliness. But I wonder if social media intensifies the threat, which feels existential, by showing us 100 million fractious little voids where we thought we had friendly belief-outposts, and one possession in particular seems to replace what was lost.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.