Most of us have spent the greater part of our lives living in these spaces that, whether we like it or not, we’ve come to call home. Their place in our personal histories is undeniable. Yet our homes have even deeper connection to our identities, much in the same way that our choice of clothes and hairstyles, our painstakingly curated images on social media, and our carefully adopted behaviors do.
Wander through somebody’s home and you get a pretty good idea of what its inhabitants are like. Framed vacation photos and graduation portraits scattered throughout the living room provide a glimpse of personal history. Peek inside someone’s bedroom and its contents—titles lining a bookshelf, an old sports bag carelessly dumped into the corner, objects cluttered on a desk—further paint a surprisingly vivid picture of its occupants.
Looking closer, you discover their quirks and day-to-day habits, revealed in clues unwittingly left behind. You could make a fair guess of one’s attitude toward cleanliness by how organized their desk is. Or you could form in your mind the impression of a particular individual, perpetually in a state of hurry the moment they wake, from the piles of clothes strewn on their bed and a plate of breakfast left unfinished on the counter as they rushed out the door.
Most interesting, however, are the deliberate and conscious choices people make when designing their private spaces. While choice of decor may merely be the result of one’s personal tastes and preferences, oftentimes, what we choose to fill our homes with depends on the image of ourselves we wish others to see.
By lavishing a visitor’s eyes with sophisticated and clearly valuable pieces of furniture, what are we trying to tell them about our tastes? By displaying the trinkets and mementos we’ve collected throughout our travels for everyone to see, what do we wish our visitors to think of the kind of lifestyles we live?
But that isn’t to say we all aspire to some kind of narcissistic materialism. These objects that we choose to fill our homes with may also serve as an affirmation of our inner selves. They give shape to our identities in the real world, and allow us to, in a way, live out our taste and values. They’re real, tangible reminders of who we are.
And among the myriad of our possessions, a certain few hold an even deeper, less obvious importance for us. Our identities, personalities, tastes, values—everything about us—is bound to inevitable change. Our memories fare no better, liable to self-distortion and inaccuracy as time goes by and as our bodies age. Whether to remember happier times in our lives or, quite possibly, to remind ourselves of the kind of people we are and the kind of people we want to be, certain objects serve to secure our identities and personal histories within an otherwise fragile and temporary existence.
A simple, admittedly even shabby, wooden figurine given to us by a friend no longer in constant contact is proudly displayed on our desks. Our father’s old watch, now broken and beyond repair, would be the first thing we choose to save if our house was on fire. An image of our younger selves, staring at us through a graduation portrait, reminds us of the aspirations we once held. Our lives may be passing quickly, but these things we fill our most private spaces with are our reminders of things past. They anchor us in certain points of our lives so that we may never forget them.
Our possessions don’t define us, nor should we judge someone based solely what they own, yet it’s impossible to claim that material objects don’t play a meaningful role in our lives. Our homes and possessions have become inevitably tied to our own selves. They aren’t integral to our existence, but they have nonetheless come to help us with it in some way.