The pitfalls of Accumulation
Human memory probably best illustrates the dangers of accumulation, says the author on a philosophical note.
When one is a child, one collects, among other things, soft toys and battery-operated miniatures of aeroplanes and cars. When one grows into adolescence, one collects clothes, posters or newspaper clippings – usually of one’s favourite sports or film celebrities, certificates or prizes for achievements, and photographs from meetings and partings.
When one becomes an adult, one starts accumulating, based on one's financial clout, jewels, cars (actual-sized ones that run on the road), houses, bills from fine-dining restaurants and ticket stubs from journeys to exotic destinations among other things. In the autumn of one’s life, while waiting for death’s embrace, one spends one’s time fondly recalling all that one has accumulated as well as teaching others – grandchildren, mostly, if one has them – what and how to accumulate things in the first place.
There should be something, then, about accumulation that the human mind finds absorbing and the human heart finds appealing, even alluring. It is that same something that makes it seem normal in the course of human life. After all, if one is involved in accumulating things for almost all of one’s life, normalising it in the process, accumulation must be fuelled by a gravity (or gravities) that is hard to resist, let alone counteract. That gravity, it appears to me, is composed of two, probably co-dependent, forces: social context and identity formation. Social context often dictates what we buy or accumulate, for instance; the need for a particular identity supplies the why.
Suppose my neighbours have bought the latest Audi. I see them take it out for a spin and hear them – and others – say great things about it. A social value has thus been put on the car, impelling me to own something very like it. Assuming I can afford it, I then buy the car (or at least plan to) so that I too will be identified as one of those people who owns the gorgeous vehicle. Unfortunately, my happiness – if that is the right word – at being ‘one of those people’ will last only until I see the next great car hit the streets. And then the process fuelled by social context and the pursuit of a prestigious identity is likely to repeat itself.
Consider an alternative example, one which should be familiar to all writers: it has to do with acceptance of one’s work. If my own experience is anything to go by, the wish to have one’s writings accepted by a journal or a magazine is tied to the need to have them ‘out there’ in the world where, presumably, more readers will read them. The wish for acceptance, if not thought through carefully, becomes a kind of need with time. Also, before long, one starts to yearn to publish one’s works in ‘better places’ so as to be considered a better writer by others – even if such a consideration sits most powerfully in one’s own mind.
Despite the strong personal and social pulls behind it, however, accumulation appears to be a rather short-sighted and dangerous affair. It is short-sighted because most things which one hoards come with a shelf-life or a sell-by date. Even if they do not, the restive nature of the human mind, coupled with the rapid footfalls of change, makes most of our acquisitions obsolete after a while. It is dangerous because accumulation then becomes a self-serving habit, and like most such habits, can cause discontent in the long run, even if it is not outright deleterious.
Human memory probably best illustrates the dangers of accumulation. After all it is but a diorama of attachments to lived experiences. Indeed, some memories have their advantages, underpinned as they are by evolutionary imperatives. However, it is also memory that triggers severe – sometimes crippling – anxieties about the future based on events of the past, such as surviving a near-fatal accident, experiencing a landslide of academic or professional failures, or letting go of important people from one’s life. It may be argued of course that there are also good memories, full of capacity to empower individuals, to make them wake up the next morning, as it were, no matter how hard life is. While that point may be conceded, it is also to be acknowledged that the same good memories are apt to leave individuals wallowing in nostalgia far too long, when life in essence is about moving forward.
Srinivas S is a phonologist by training and in thought, and teaches English at the Rishi Valley School, India. He has let accents, cricket and poetry partake equally of his mind; and spends his free time marshalling his thoughts on these subjects, often while taking long walks. His writings have found a home in places such as ESPNcricinfo, Amethyst Review, Borderless Journal, Narrow Road Journal and The Hong Kong Review as well as in a number of haiku journals.