Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

On loving our possessions

wall hanging

This is possibly the single thing I love most in the world. I cannot quite explain why, but when I look at it I am filled with love. I don’t get to look at it often, because it’s safely folded away in a cupboard, waiting for the day I have a room of my own where I can hang it and gaze at it whenever I want to. But just knowing that it is there is reassuring and I have created an imagined future centred around creating a life where I am surrounded by that wall hanging and all the other things I love.

All around the world, the last few weeks have centred around the frantic acquisition of things to give as gifts. Will those things be loved? Will they be valued? Some things are useful, even essential. But we don’t love them. We don’t feel a fullness in our hearts when we look at them. So why do some things move us? Why do we have to possess them?

We often characterise the desire for possessions as crass materialism and often that’s exactly what it is but it is also true that the desire to possess things that we love is endemic to humanity. History has been driven as much by the desire to have beautiful things as it has by the need to expand territory and extract resources. Art is the creation of the artist but also — in a way — the person who buys it and owns it too. Whoever created this and then owned it must surely have loved it:


I first saw that wall hanging in a curio shop in Hoedspruit. My response to it was immediate, visceral. I had to have it. It was R2 000 I did not need to spend — in fact it was horribly extravagant — and yet it never crossed my mind that I would not possess it. There was something about the colours, the purple and the intense blue, the creatures in it, the exuberance of the design; that it was crafted by a woman who sewed in all that detail. She must have had pride in her work, love even, because something that intricate and beautiful cannot have been created without love.

There are other things — some are possessions, some not — that I love too. Some because they are beautiful, some because they represent freedom, some because I feel that they help define me in a way that I like.

There’s the laptop on which I’m writing this blog and uploading it, my two-year-old 13-inch MacBook. Not the fastest or the best but it’s mine and it represents all the potential novels I will write. It’s a symbol of both freedom and creativity, the ability to work from anywhere and earn a living. (Funnily enough, I don’t feel the same about my iPhone.)

A book, The Truth in Masquerade, which is about my favourite historical figure, Francois Le Vaillant. It’s out of print and I was lucky to find it.
A print of an old map of Africa which hangs above my bed.
A bead and wire bull I bought from a Zimbabwean called Godfrey and which is the most perfectly judged representation of the animal that I’ve ever seen in this medium.
My giant carved chicken, the one in my profile picture.
Some of my own paintings because I created them and they capture something of the feeling I was hoping to evoke, like this one:

dying rose

Or this one:

tower of babel

And yes, my car, which isn’t my car (in case this isn’t clear to any of you, it’s sponsored so I don’t own it — I just get to drive it thanks to the very generous people at Land Rover and an unbelievable amount of luck). I love it because it is expensive and it codes for status (and people in the parking lot at Monte Casino leave fingerprints on the glass) but mostly because it is beautiful. The design moves me: the way the line of the windows rakes toward the rear, the solidity of its stance from one angle, the way it manages to look as though it is moving when it is standing still from another. I am filled with a certain ineffable satisfaction every time I look at it and every evening I lay a hand on the bonnet in gratitude for all that it represents.

Is it wrong to love things? No, provided (obviously) that we don’t love them more than conscious beings or ideas that matter, and we keep in mind that things are always only the physical manifestation of the concepts behind the surface, whether it’s gleaming metal or painted wood or simply bright cotton.

But love them we do. It’s part of what makes us human.

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    • Albert

      Your greatest possession is your health. The one you love the most, without realising it. The one you should look after more than any other. You can lose just about everything else and still be OK.

    • Dave Harris

      “Is it wrong to love things?”
      I suppose you’re right in that loving and worshiping inanimate objects is a common trait across cultures – some more than others hint hint…but therein lies the rub Sarah – why does it not follow that the possessors of these objects of desire should be among the happiest of humans?
      Yes, just like money, fame, power etc, the acquisition of beautiful things in search of love/happiness, is yet another mindless addiction in our modern society. In fact, in relative terms, even though its a suicidal path, drug addicts are far smarter and braver in their quest for happiness.
      Loving things to the extent that you seem to do brings to mind that old song, “Lookin for love in all the wrong places”

    • Judith

      I love the tranquility of my home, with my grandfather’s carvings and other treasures in it. But most of all, I love my husband’s quirky sense of humour, which changes my blackest moods to smiles, our dogs and cat who remind me that they are there for me and my daughter and grandchildren who represent the future that I am working wo make possible

    • La Quebecoise

      I have one of those wall-hangings as well . They come from the workshop set up by a citrus farmer’s wife in an area near Johannesburg, if memory serves me, and are done in what we call blanket stitch. The first time I saw one was in the Porcupine Gallery in Cape Town, and it was used as a tabletop. The cloth was laid on a flat surface, & covered with a plate of glass. Stunningly beautiful and my soul resonnated when I saw it. And the gold rhino is stunning and I had the same reaction.

    • Paul Barrett

      I wonder if it’s worth responding to Dave Harris. Probably not, but hey, I feel like doing it anyway :).

      Dave, Sarah covered your comment already, but let’s repeat:

      The pursuit of possessions as a means for happiness is a fail from the start.
      Love of something that is special to you is not worship.
      Love of inanimate objects should not come before love of conscious beings or ideas.

      If you’d paid attention to what Sarah said about the things she loves, you’d see that the extent of her love does not go as far as you insinuate.

      You’d also notice that the things she loves *do* bring her happiness.

      The people who possess things and are not happy are those who bought things they didn’t fall in love with, in a drive to make themselves happy. They don’t actually love them. That’s like being with someone you don’t love in order to be happy – you just won’t be, because what’s missing is the love.

      The things I love tend to be less tangible, for instance I love most of my music collection (the rest I just really really like,) but it’s the music and not the container that I love. Nonetheless, since it is specific purchased music and not just music in general that I love, that means it is a “material” possession (in the days of digital downloads, the definition of “material” becomes murky in some cases.)

      Referring to what Albert said, could I lose everything I own and still be happy? Sure, I could. I’d be less happy, but I’d recover.

    • nguni

      What’s the common denominator between the wall hanging (nothing special BTW) and the Hillbrow tower painting….? – the phallic symbols. Get a boyfriend soon.
      On second thought, that post office tower painting resembles bloodied female genitals, maybe you ought to show it to a shrink? I don’t share your infatuation for the Range Rover, I find it a vehicle for show-offs. As with most brit. cars its also notoriously unreliable.

    • peter

      Sorry but I missed the part where Sarah mentioned worship. The wall hanging is extremely beautiful and I guess there are many incl,uding myself who would love to have it, without necessarily actually loving it. Love is something that most people do not ever experience in their lives and worship is something else enirely. The two are not remotely the same. There are many things which have that indefinable appeal which is able to create in some folks a feeling of pleasure and joy and the wall hanging would fall into that category as would the paintings of Sarah and her Range Rover. It is good to know that some folks still experience such joy in creativity and all those items mentioned are creations of substance and none can deny anyone the right to experience the joy and pleasure in seeing the sheer beauty, grace and achievement embodied in such creations.

    • J.J.

      Hi Sarah,

      That wall hanging is really beautiful. There is spirituality to it. I would really, really love to own it too, but there’s no way I would pay R2000 for it, as a matter of principle. So, here I am looking at a picture of it (and that’s okay too) and appreciating it as much as I would if it were in my room or living room. (Thanks for uploading and sharing). Owning it would be nice though, but not that important.

      “I love it because it is expensive and it codes for status…” (The Land Rover)

      Now, here’s the rub – we should not be attaching our self-worth to our possessions – that would mean we love our possession for the way they make us feel (about ourselves. So, we would always need certain types of possessions, not only to feel adequate, but to maintain that feeling and that would make us prone to continuously comparing and competing with others. in terms of what everyone has / or doesn’t have. Anyway if the car is not yours, we could argue that the “status” it codes for is just an illusion.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I think the word “love” has become rather meaningless. The Greeks had at least 6 different words for love, depending on the type of relationship.

      I don’t think any of them applied to possessions.

    • MLH

      ‘Love’ doesn’t do the emotion justice. Aesthetic appreciation works better for me.
      I live with several glorious antique pieces, most of which were bought forty-odd years ago, long before my son was born. Since then, I haven’t bought a single beautiful furnishing; emotional attachment is definitely part of the deal.
      I paid R50 for a Scotch chest; removed the French polish one winter, slipping a disc (in my back) in the process and oiling it well before building up a polish patina over 33 years. 2012 may be the year I have to get the back operated on, but my appreciation of the talent and workmanship in that chest has been worth every twinge, crippled limp and backache the years laid down. It is made solely with dowels…not a screw or nail; untouched by mechanical machinery. I still marvel at the planning and work ethic that created it. And my sheer luck in finding it in a second-hand store and recognising its potential. I replaced cheap, new handles with brass ones and found a practical piece of absolute beauty.
      People who can appreciate art and design enough to want it around them are surely very blessed? Whether a painting or ‘artwork’ is original gives it no extra value to me, but to be able to acknowledge the ability of others to create beauty is surely virtually as good as admiring weather, plants and animals?
      Gifts of this nature not only enhance our lives, but have created wonderful memories of those who picked them out for me or passed them on before they…

    • MLH


    • Dave Harris

      Thank you J.J for your fitting comments.
      Paul Barrett, my intent is not to play word games with Sarah.

      Sarah, the way you describe your Land Rover borders on pornography. Why such an obsession with “beautiful things”? Another extreme example of this love affair with inanimate objects can be seen by the quirky phenomenon of Japanese men having real “love affairs” with Japanese Love Dolls Nothing wrong with it, but for f$&@ sake, there is so much more to life that this fixation and desire to possess objects of beauty – Is it the pursuit of that ever elusive everlasting love?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I have tried to think of a word, other than love, for possessions – there is none in the English language.

      The English language is great on science and intellect but low on emotions. In Afrikaans – ek is lief vir jou, ek het jou lief, ek is verlief – all are different emotions.

      The Greeks had at least 6 different words for love.

      Xhosa words and descriptions relate to relationships.

      None of these are found in English.

    • Paul Barrett

      @Lyndall: try ‘adore’ and ‘cherish’. Then, if speaking about people, you can also have ‘love’, ‘in love’, and ‘affection’.

    • chantelle

      Then I’m not human, because I can’t wait for the day that everything I own can fit into one small little suitcase, and I can just hit the road and disappear off the radar. I’m planning for that day and it’s almost here.

    • william

      Your article reminds me of a quote by Ravi Zacharias. He might have been quoting someone else, but loosely put, he said “We as people were created to love people and use things, and we get it wrong when we instead use people and love things”.

      I’m not saying I don’t love things, I do – but that convinced me that I need to work on loving people more, and loving things less…

    • OneFlew

      I’m with chantelle and william.

      It’s a question of what is ego-syntonic and what ego-dystonic. We all cherish possessions, but what do we idealise: that we achieve a state where we don’t cherish possessions, or that we simply achieve a better rationalisation of our materialism?

      I think our better nature, and conventional morality as told in a thousand tales and fables over millennia, suggests that we should aim for the state where we do not idolise our possessions.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The things I care about have family or historic associations. I just wish my bloody daughters would get established in homes I can offload them on.

      My ideal is a mobile home – which I can’t afford, nor could I ever afford the petrol!