One of the things we say about our favorite things is that we “care about them.” We care about them more than we care about other things— or maybe that we “care for” them more. Or even that we are more “careful” with them.
I’m certainly very careful when I handle my favorite vase. I (unconsciously) concentrate on how I’m holding it, on other things that are in my vicinity when I carry it, on where I’m going to place it when I put it down.
The vase is not only beautiful— it is a memento of a trip to Milan. It was created by a branded glass company, Venini, but it is unique. We have cherished it for decades.
What does it mean to “care” about an object?
Implicit in caring for the object is a connection between ourselves and the thing that goes beyond the atoms that comprise it. We touch and hold things we care about differently than other objects… we treat them with reverence, as if they are animated by a quality that distinguishes them from others.
“Handle with care” says the label on fragile or dangerous things. We all know what those words mean.
We also implicitly know that all things are perpetually in a state of precarity… that is, in a temporary state of equilibrium, but never far from the disequilibrium that is always just over the horizon for all things (including ourselves).
Things break. Things burn. Things wear out. Entropy.
A thing we care for may come to harm if we are not care-full… and its harm would affect us, because it is a favorite. Being a favorite is its hidden power. Sometimes we don’t realize how powerful the thing is until it is gone. “I felt really sad when I broke that cup!”
Our bodies respond automatically, instinctively, when we take up the challenge of “handling things with care.” We assume distinctive postures, and move and gesture in ways that reflect the effort required to concentrate on the caring for the thing. (How do we do that? How do we try to be careful?) We admonish others, especially children, when we see them not observing the requisite degree of caution (respect?) when handling these things: “be careful with that!”
It is as if the thing had a soul, a spirit that must be guarded. That spirit engulfs, permeates the favorite thing, transforming it into a special object of care. That spirit must emerge from the object’s story; like Muriel Rukeyser said: “the universe is not made of atoms, it is made of stories.” What we care about when we care for our favorites is not simply the atoms that make up the thing, but the story that is inextricably intertwined with those atoms, transubstantiating the atoms and elevating them to another plane of being.
These may seem like flighty thoughts about a sweater, a vase, or a cup, but our behavior belies their rootedness in our lives through our ways of being with them. Our attentiveness to them speaks to the ways in which we become “attached” to objects— literally— and treat them with levels of care that sometimes even exceed those we display toward other people.
Of course, not all objects in our lives rise to this plane of caring. Those with which we are most deeply attached are usually special in the most personal way. They probably mean little to others (or maybe only monetarily) because of the degree of integration between the object’s life story and our own.
That means there are degrees of caring about objects, another insight that we all understand intuitively. Companies that make things— branded objects— know this, too. They strive to create things that we integrate into our life stories: things that we care about, things that “matter” to us. The more we care about these things, the more deeply they become part of our lives, the more “loyalty” we are likely to feel toward the brand.
I care about Levy’s rye bread. I am loyal to the brand, and experience a moment of disappointment when the “supply chain” has failed to deliver it to its usual spot in my supermarket. That disappointment (“damn, no Levy’s”) is an index of my caring— certainly not as great as it would be if I had broken my favorite cup or— quelle horreur— that vase, but still a moment that reflects my relationship with the object and brand.
Our favorites have traveled a path with us from mere objects to objects-in-relationship. They have become “personalized.” We are “concerned” with/about them. They have been elevated to another lived level in our lives.
We teach our children to be care-full with things from a very early age. This must mean that developing the capacity to experience and treat objects as important, especially our favorites, is a valuable part of being human that has been passed down from our predecessors.
Over the last 150 years, our culture has evolved the ability to mass produce identical objects in overwhelming quantities. This has led to high levels of “object anonymity,” dulling our propensity to care for things. (“We’ll get another one…”) Yet, caring for things is an expression of solicitude (attentiveness, protectiveness), conscientiousness which calls us to an awareness of a way of being in the world that respects and values the world beyond its function as a mere source of “raw materials” to be converted into more and more disposable objects.
Thinking about our favorite things, and attending to being with them carefully as special objects, can help each of us rekindle our caring for the world; renew our duty to look after it; to live with things and one another in ways that have been blunted by the overwhelming power of industrialized modern consumerism.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally published with the title “Caring About Favorites” on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.