Why Do We Get Attached to Objects, and Why Does it Hurt When We Lose Them?

Posted inCreative Voices

Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker began creating the book Lost Objects: 50 Stories About the Things We Miss and Why They Matter following the success of Significant Objects, a project-turned-book where they collected fictional stories inspired by thrift store finds. With Lost Objects, they have shifted to nonfiction narratives in their continuing exploration of objects and meaning.

Joshua and Rob have gathered 50 true stories from a dazzling roster of writers, artists, thinkers, and storytellers, including Lucy Sante, Ben Katchor, Lydia Millet, Neil LaBute, Laura Lippman, Geoff Manaugh, Paola Antonelli, Margaret Wertheim, and many more. Each spins a unique, personal narrative that dives into the meaning of objects that remain present to us emotionally, even after they have physically disappeared. To bring this collection of essays even more vividly to life, Josh and Rob gathered a similarly impressive array of artists to illustrate these meaningful things that have gone missing. Visual contributors include Seth, Kate Bingaman-Burt, Oliver Munday, Lisa Congdon, Matt Wuerker, Anita Kunz, Alex Eben Meyer, Gary Panter, and Kelli Anderson.

Given my penchant for objects, Rob and Josh invited me to write the foreword to their book; the following is my contribution. You can check out more excepts from Lost Objects at the bottom of this post.

When I was five years old, whenever anyone gave me any candy, rather than eat it immediately, I’d hide it in a vintage pocketbook my grandmother had given me for playing dress-up. I kept this a secret, and after nearly a year I amassed a hefty collection of lollipops, SweeTarts, Life Savers, and Necco Wafers. When I was sure that no one could catch me, I’d close my bedroom door, soundlessly reach for the pocketbook from its hiding place under my bed, and gingerly remove all the candy. As the reds and yellows of the lollipops shimmered and sparkled in their cellophane wrappers, I would admire my clandestine collection. Then I would lovingly organize it, first by color, then by shape, and when I finished cataloging my bounty, I would carefully return it to the handbag and slide it back under the bed. I was proud and awed by my secret stash.

One day, very mysteriously, my pocketbook disappeared. I looked all over the house, to no avail. Fast forward 55 years and I still have no idea what happened to it. I don’t know if my mother found my covert candy collection and threw it all away, or if she unwittingly donated the bag to Goodwill. Back then I was too afraid to ask. I was ashamed of my behavior and fearful of what my parents might think. 

The loss of my pocketbook broke my little-kid heart. But it never stopped me from collecting. In fact, the loss may have taught me something about what we value in the first place.

I am a collector of things. First and foremost, I collect quotidian things. I’ve hoarded toilet paper for as long as I can remember; I feel more comfortable with multiple packages of mega-rolls in my basement, alongside a 12-pack of paper towels and many six-packs of tissues. I think these humble products are rather beautiful in their simplicity: the perfectly soft round rolls of winter white paper, and the iconic boxes. Their loveliness— at least to me— is as real as their usefulness. My family and friends are sometimes puzzled by this behavior, but mostly, they chalk it up to my long career as a brand consultant and a theory they’ve developed about the pride I have in the products I’ve helped redesign. I wish it were that simple. 

Don’t get me wrong: I collect more “collectible,” erudite things, too: conceptual art featuring text and the pottery of Miranda Thomas, for example. I’ve also accumulated a rather unwieldy assortment of objects from my travels: small glass birds, colorful marble eggs, and heart-shaped paper weights. Then there is the decades-long recreation of my childhood library: the yellow-backed Nancy Drews, the dog-eared Scholastic paperbacks, and the Ginnie and Geneva series by Catherine Woolley. And there always seems to be something I’m missing that I must have that pops up on eBay. 

Not to be limited by my crass consumerism, I collect sentimental ephemera, as well: handwritten notes from my students, Post-it notes dressed up as little love letters from my wife, voice messages from a dear departed friend. 

In analyzing my penchant for collecting over the years—both the tender and the banal—I’ve questioned whether these things bring me joy or if there is something more insidious lurking beneath the behavior. Initially I thought these objects produced a profound sense of self-sufficiency: tangible proof that I could take care of my needs and indulge my various interests. Then I began to suspect that my need to collect— certainly my penchant for paper products— had to be driven more by psychological needs than physiological ones. 

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a landmark paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation, which sought to classify the universal needs of society. Famously, he determined that these needs were hierarchical, and each need would have to be fulfilled before a person could advance to the next level. The second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs—sandwiched between physiological needs and the need for love and belonging—is safety. According to Maslow, humans require the security of body, family, health, and property even more than we need love. I have come to believe that many of the objects in my life play just this role: they help me feel safe and secure.

And yet, for whatever strange reason, I’ve lost a lot of significant things I’ve collected over the years. After losing the pocketbook full of candy at five years old, I lost a charm necklace a beloved babysitter gave me shortly thereafter. I lost the very first first-place award I ever won (for the three-legged race) in sixth grade. Then I lost both the opal earrings my grandparents gave me when I graduated from elementary school and the birthstone ring my mother gave me (handed down from her parents) when I left for college. Most recently, I lost six monogrammed crystal glasses and a stunning painting made by a friend in a chaotic house move.

Given how much I love and revere my things, it seemed a puzzle to me that I was so prone to losing them. What were these losses doing to my sense of self? I began to worry. Then I became determined to try and understand this conundrum. 

In my research, I stumbled upon a website titled NotLost.com, which was created by “lost and found experts.” I had no idea this kind of expertise existed. I was also struck to discover that the fear of the loss of a smartphone now is so prevalent it has its own term: nomophobia. I learned that children lose up to seven things per month, and millennials are twice as likely as baby boomers to misplace their possessions. The average person, it turns out, loses more than 3,000 items over the course of their lifetime. 

That is a lot of loss. 

But why? Why do we lose things? The experts on NotLost.com had a profoundly simple answer: 

Because we are human

The book you are holding now is one filled with deeply human stories of lost objects. In its pages you will experience the loss of books and clothes and jewelry and furniture. You will read about the disappearance of a fountain pen and a baseball mitt and a mullet wig. Many of these stories made me laugh out loud, some made me cry. 

What struck me most while reading Lost Objects is how much love humans project into inanimate things. The contributors to this book have imbued a palpable, living soulful-ness into the items that have disappeared or were misplaced or given away. Now— here in this book— that love can be discovered all over again. 

After reading and experiencing these shared losses, I’ve come to realize that holding on to objects is not what keeps me feeling secure. Losing something doesn’t make it less real. I may not be able to hold my lost objects in my hands any longer, but I can still hold them in my imagination, and in my heart. Indeed, that connection will always remain safe.