The process of buying and exchanging gifts during the holiday season reminds me of the age-old question of whether materialism should be embraced or discouraged. The author, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde is known for saying “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” However, a great single-named musical philosopher embraced materialism with the lines “We are living in a material world, and I am material girl.” So which line of thinking is healthier to gravitate towards this season?
I have led many psychotherapy groups and one of the most powerful exercises I facilitate has to do with this very subject. I bring in an object – sometimes it’s a handkerchief, sometimes a hat, sometimes something else entirely. I put the object in the middle of the group (usually on a table that the participants are sitting around) and I hand each participant one of two stories about the object and I ask that they do not speak to one another. The participants don’t know that there is more than one story about the object.
Half of the group receives a fictional story (they don’t know it’s fictional) about the object that explains how it was passed down from my grandfather, who was a WWII veteran, someone I was very close with, and he gave me the object the last time I saw him which was many years ago. I add that it was the only thing I had from him to keep his memory alive. The other half of the group receives a fictional story (again, they don’t know it’s fictional) about how I bought the object on sale at Walmart last week. I then ask them to imagine that later that day I accidentally lose the object. I ask them to discuss what my thoughts, feelings, and actions might be if this event occurred without going into why I would have these experiences (so as not to reveal that two stories about the object exist).
As you might expect, those who believed it was a gift from my grandfather imagined that I would be deeply saddened, maybe angry with myself at my carelessness, and I would spend hours retracing my steps in an attempt to find my lost treasure. Those who thought I simply purchased it last week imagined I would have barely noticed it was gone, simply to be replaced whenever I decided to go back to the store. After a few minutes of discussion with each half of the group not understanding one another’s perspectives about the situation, I reveal the truth about the exercise.
It’s a powerful lesson to remind ourselves that the value and the meaning of objects do not exist within themselves, they exist within us. We place meaning on objects based on our values and what we deem to be important. Sometimes we can forget that this is entirely within our control. We have the power to choose what is of value to us. Many of us with young kids are reminded of this on a daily basis as we marvel at what they find to be invaluable. We will likely be reminded again when they unwrap a toy and have more fun playing with the box that it came in!
If you are lucky enough to be given material gifts this season, I encourage you to challenge yourself to determine what you find to be valuable. Does the object need to be exactly what you thought you wanted from the ear-marked Sears catalog (am I the only one who keeps that tradition alive??), or does it have greater value and meaning to you based on who thought to get it for you and why they thought you’d like it? In this way, I believe both Oscar Wilde and Madonna would be smiling with approval.
Justin Hill, Ph.D., is a psychologist currently accepting individual and couples clients in his private practice located in the Hill Country Galleria in Bee Cave, TX. To learn more about him and his practice philosophy, please visit HillBehavioralWellness.com.