Objective value — July 2016
In the past two days three strangers have been in my bedroom. The last dusted for fingerprints, the second took a witness statement, and the first took a jewellry box made by my grandfather.
It’s a strange feeling knowing that three strangers have taken the measure of you just by looking through your things.
I guess that by the time the final stranger arrived my room had lost the still stale warmth that lingers after sleeping bodies, but when the first entered they were met with the disarray of someone else’s rushed Friday morning; half a bowl of cornflakes abandoned on the desk, deodorant uncapped, towel piled, still damp, on the duvet.
They propped the door open with a box of shoes pulled out from under the bed and rifled through several drawers to find pairs of old tights, crumpled receipts, rolls of sticky-tape, notebooks, and piles of envelopes and scribbled postcards. They opened the cupboards, pulled out clean sheets and duvet covers, shook out a box of carefully folded plastic bags, and took two empty rucksacks. They pulled the duvet from the bed and tossed aside some clothes from the laundry basket, letting them fall empty and unbodied to the floor.
From the desk they took the laptop, with it a dozen essays on Shakespeare and a folder of photographs that never made it to the safety of the cloud. The laptop probably let out a little whirring sigh of resignation as they closed the lid. They took a small tin from the bookshelf and unscrewed the top; deeming 2 euros and a glow-in-the-dark star not to be worth taking. From the shelf up they took the plain woooden jewellry box, probably opening it to check the contents; lifting the felt partitions and letting out its dusty metallic smell.
It probably takes less than ten minutes to make an estimation of a room that holds the physical stuff of another person’s life. To decide what is of value and what isn’t. To lift up a person’s possessions, with sleeves pulled down over fingertips so as to only leave empty smudges behind, and to weigh up their worth. I wonder if the stranger judged me deserving of these losses, whether they looked at the faces in the picture frames and thought they had the measure of the person they belonged to.
I’ve wondered a lot about this first stranger and what they could have been thinking as they walked around my room. I’ve wondered a lot about their capacity for empathy, whether they feel the same about their house as I feel about mine, whether they’ve loved or lost grandparents. I can’t know how they ended up as a stranger in a stranger’s bedroom, or how they feel about the objects they have so recently acquired, any more than they can know what they meant to me.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, or assigning myself too much significance in the situation. I know I’m not the first person to have their house broken into and our house probably wasn’t the first house this person had broken into. How I’d feel when I got home definitely wasn’t high on their list of concerns. After all, these things are only objects, and apart from me they’re reduced to their resale value or their weight to size ratios; the snap judgements of a desparate stranger. Isn’t their value only relative, subject only to the hand that holds them? Perhaps my absence, and now their estrangement from me, reduces these things to the sum of their parts; a wooden box, a cheap gold necklace, a page of computer code.
I’m not so convinced.
What if the value that we assign to the objects we own is more substantial than their physicality and more permanent than the room that holds them? I really don’t want to believe that the meaning I give to something is lost as soon as the object leaves my hands. I don’t want to just accept that my box has become mere driftwood in the world now. I feel a loss, a loss that is small but significant. The loss of the smell of wood and dust and metal, a loss of the physical thing that kept my knowledge of a grandparent’s love rooted in touchable reality.
I know that the things we own in this world are breakable and impermanent. I know it’s futile to try to fill my heart with treasure that will rust and decay, and yet, there is worth in caring for the things we own and in living as whole, memory-filled and home-seeking people. We tread a fine line, holding these things with a light but careful hand. So I feel a sadness that I will not let turn to bitterness.
This world is filled with of the tangled threads of personality; the personalities of the man who lovingly cut and nailed the box together, the daughter he gave it to, the daughter she passed it on to, and the stranger who took it from her bedroom. And holding these threads together is the personality of the God who knows what it is to love and lose. Meaning is anchored in this personality; the God who measures us, weighs our worth, and bears the greatest loss, that we might know what it is to be found and made whole. The God who promises to make new, that ultimately nothing will be lost, and that there is meaning in the fragments of space-dust and driftwood that make up the physical stuff of our lives here.
I know I won’t see my jewellry box again, but I will cling to a hope that there is more substance to the things we love and the loss we feel than the value judgements of a stranger in a stranger’s room.