Sustainability | In Love with Stuff – Dealing with Heirlooms

By Jennifer Clark –

Picture a dimly-lit urban parking garage. Two people are standing by a car. One opens the back hatch and removes a slim wooden box, then hands it to the other person, who opens it, checks the contents, and puts it into their own car…

No, this was not a drug transaction. It was my brother and I deciding which of my family’s heirloom silverware sets he should take (of the two that had been riding around in the back of my car for more than a month.) While it’s probably unusual for a family heirloom to be passed on in this particular way, I had been given two sets by my mother during my last visit—one, my grandmother’s and the other, my great-grandparents’, both from my father’s side.

Silverware Handle Photo: Monica Baechler, pixabay.

Silverware Handle Photo: Monica Baechler, pixabay.

Why were these still in my car? Well, in short, because, like most people my age, my lifestyle doesn’t really lend itself to the use of antique silverware, so I had never brought the boxes into my house. Despite its beauty and family history, my brother didn’t know what to do with it either, but I wasn’t leaving that day without handing off a set.

We’re lucky in that, so far, the items we’ve inherited are relatively small—silverware, a painting by an ancestor, a chair. Nevertheless, when I downsized my life to move into my tiny travel-trailer home, I still couldn’t fit these things in there. I don’t feel right getting rid of them, though. They are remnants of my family’s past, and as I get older, I value our history more—but I also value things less. As a result, I now have a small storage unit that contains not just the studio equipment I intended it for, but also a couple family chairs, some art, a dresser, and the silverware. This begs the question: in a world of ever-increasing housing prices and ever-smaller condominiums, of tiny houses and minimalism, what on earth do we do with family heirlooms?

In a TedX video I found recently on the Films for Action website (a great resource for short, informative, films) titled “Why Are We So Attached to Our Things?” by Christian Jarrett (a British cognitive scientist and science writer) he explained the Endowment Effect: that people value items much more highly as soon as they own them. We quickly establish a connection between a new possession and our sense of self. From early childhood right into adulthood we also tend to think that our things are infused with a special “essence”. This “magical thinking” is revealed by the significant value given to things once owned by celebrities and sports heroes, and in our reluctance to part with family heirlooms, which help us feel connected to our family history.

What surprised me about the Endowment Effect was that researchers have found it isn’t present in egalitarian cultures that have been isolated from modern consumerism. This is a learned behaviour. We pick this up nearly from the moment we are born, from watching the actions of everyone around us, and it strengthens as we mature. I wonder, if we learn this behaviour, can we unlearn it? How wired are we to react this way?

A recent documentary, The Minimalists followed the journey of two best friends, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, as they travel North America to sell a book they wrote after undertaking a radical downsize of their lives in an effort to be happier. This is a worthwhile watch (and it’s currently available on Netflix). The Minimalists, as they call themselves, also have a website that is an excellent resource with dozens of podcasts and essays discussing the various challenges and methods that they and others have encountered while downsizing their lives. In a recent podcast (“No. 51, Moving”) they discussed, among other things, the challenge of family heirlooms, and offered some thoughts about dealing with them. In their view, downsizing is about not letting “stuff” control you—it enables you to regain control of your life by reducing your debt, and the time, space, energy, and money it takes to acquire and maintain your things. They suggest that if you are given an heirloom you really don’t want, before you get rid of it, give the person who gave it to you the opportunity to take it back. It can be hard to explain to a relative why you may not want an heirloom because our culture places such significance on them, but you can try explaining why you don’t value it the same way (for example, “Having this item adds to the stress in my life because…”)

Downsizing heirlooms is just not an easy thing. Even though my mother, who gave my brother and I the silverware, actually does understand that modern life doesn’t lend itself to the use of these things, and has said we can sell it if we want, somehow we both feel obligated by family history to keep it. It has survived, against all odds, for four or five generations, and somehow landed with us—who are we to eliminate it from the family just because the current trend doesn’t favour its use?

The other aspect of family heirlooms that I’ve been pondering lately is that these items could be a great opportunity to “reuse”. Maybe instead of that new set of cutlery, I should have just started using my 100-year-old family silverware? Maybe it’s time to value these things again for their usefulness, as well as their history and beauty.

Jennifer Clark grew up on her family’s horse and cattle ranch in the East Kootenays. She has studied sustainability issues and urban planning at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is a wildland firefighter, a fanatical gardener, and has worked and taught urban gardening at garden nurseries in Metro Vancouver. Jennifer is also an experienced potter, who occasionally teaches classes. On a nice day, she can be found outside, gardening, hiking, skiing, or if she’s lucky, kayaking in a borrowed kayak.

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