If you’ve ever seen the move “Gone With the Wind”, you may recognize the following quote as being engraved into the stone at the front of Twelve Oaks, home of the educated-yet-indicisive Ashley Wilkes:
Do Not Squander Time, For That is the Stuff Life is Made Of.
My mom always cracked up when the camera zoomed into that quotation. Such a lofty sentiment to involve the use of the word “STUFF”? The catch-all word for unimportant things or clutter or anything not really worth defining?
As I grew up and became more enraptured with linguistics and their usage and meanings, I stopped finding this sentence as funny. After all, in Benjamin Franklin’s (the author of the aforementioned sentiment) time, “stuff” was a word given a lot more import. A lot more weight. In this sense, it is used as the very essence of being; the means of composition; the center of it all.
Today, of course, it’s just a word to describe the crap we Americans cram into our garages. A word for the random tasks that we need to perform but do not want to waste either neurons or words to fully describe. And, apparently, it’s also a good word to describe the Hostess cream filling.
So, this leads me to question: does the use of language generally follow the public sentiment for the meaning of the word? If the composition of something was once given more respect in meaning, what does this mean for the clearly degraded value of the word in today’s vernacular?
This may be a stretch. But give me a moment to explain what led to this thought.
March and April are months rife with birthdays in my family. Which means, therefore, that I’m buying a lot of presents for the people dearest to me (with another peak season in the early fall; for some reason, my friends all seem to be Leos or Libras!). Therefore, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the needs and wants of my family and friends. What can I give them? What STUFF is missing that would make their life a little happier, a little more complete.
And I was surprised to realize that this is getting harder and harder each year, because everyone I know is rich.
Now, this was shocking to me. After all, by American standards, by JETSET standards the world over, no one I know is remotely in the realm. There are no trust funds to speak of, no wealth managers needed. Not even a luxury car to be seen. We are firmly is the grasp of the middle-class.
But the fact of the matter is, to 90% of the world, we are wealthy. I cannot give to my friends anything that they cannot GET for themselves. There is nothing that they NEED. All of their physical needs, and for the most part, their desires can be accomplished by their own hand. True, it is sometimes with the help of their credit lines, but do-able nonetheless.
Which thrusts upon us the Rich Man’s Dilemma – one that I’ve blamed for the omnipresent and highly-apparent dissatisfaction of the upper echelon for years – the possibility of becoming blasé. Because when you can have everything, NOTHING is of value. And if nothing means ANYTHING, what is there to look forward to? What is there to thrill you?
Why else do you think so many second-generation celebutantes turn to drugs and other risky behavior? They haven’t HAD to work for anything; they don’t know the satisfaction of a job well done; of the accomplishment that comes with earning either respect or the liquidity to purchase something they’ve long desired.
And because of this, because of our “rich” culture, STUFF – as a concept and as a word – has lost its value.
Less than a century ago, children were delighted to find an orange in their stocking on Christmas morning. But the bar has been raised, though the growing wealth of the country, through mass-production and stimulation of consumerism via marketing, through the availability of STUFF and the always-increasing ability to acquire it.
Which is making it harder and harder to demonstrate one’s affection for another through anything that can be gift-wrapped.
Which means I’m probably going to have to start actually showing people that I care for them on a regular basis, instead of being sardonically droll and charmingly disaffected for 363 days a year.