The Things We Carry: What Objects Have Meaning for You?

What do the objects we surround ourselves with reveal about us?

Posted May 28, 2019

Centre Georges Pompidou/Public Domain
En Morn, collage by Kurt Schwitters (1947)
Source: Centre Georges Pompidou/Public Domain

In the opening of Tim O’Brien’s heart-wrenching novel The Things They Carried, a fictional account of the author’s experiences in Vietnam, he lists items soldiers in Alpha Company carried into battle:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha. . . .They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.”

Henry Dobbins carried extra rations. He was especially fond of canned peaches. Dave Jensen carried a toothbrush and dental floss; Mitchell Sanders carried condoms; Rat Kiley, comic books. Kiowa carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet.

We don’t need to have served in combat to feel the gut-punch of what O’Brien describes. In situations where we face the unknown, especially when it’s dangerous or threatening, we reach for symbolic objects that offer a sense of normality, safety, and hope. “The ability to hope,” writes Jon Elster in Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality, “is a hallmark of a healthy personality because it allows individuals to reconcile the opposing forces of reality and want.”

Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott famously coined the term “transitional object” to refer to an object a child uses to feel secure during the developmental stage when she is learning to separate from her primary caretaker. Toddlers may have their “blankies,” a favorite toy or teddy bear, and older children a lucky penny or stone tucked into a pocket, but our instinct to feel safe in the world transcends childhood. We sense it as a strategy for survival.  

As adults, we may wear a cross or a Star of David, hang giant dice from our car mirror, carry a beloved’s photograph, or even a poem or a prayer. Our rational minds may reject the notion that these items protect us, but another part of us says: What the hell. It can’t hurt. Not unlike the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s novel, our talismans mediate feelings of unease, anxiety, and fear. A condom-carrying soldier might seem like a sensible thing to be, but O’Brien is pointing to something beyond practicality when he tells us what the soldiers carry: for men engaged in war, condoms and toothbrushes represent life; bodies that are dead have no use for such things.

As our ancients knew through ritual and ceremony, symbolic objects serve to embody a society’s longings and desires, hopes and dreams as well as its deepest fears. Magical objects, chants, drumming, tattoos, scarifications held the customs and traditions of a culture and were part of the “space” of ritual, itself a place where transformation and renewal could occur.

As early as the 1950s, Carl Jung noted modern man’s disdain for indigenous rituals. He argued that rational man feared and dreaded the irrational, or what he called the mythopoetic—myth-making—imagination. Jung and his colleague Marie Louise-Von Franz believed “that each individual carries within him, stored in his unconscious, the entire historical past of his people, even humanity as a whole.” Losing access to the symbol-creating, myth-making capacity inside oneself is not just a loss to the individual, but a collective loss to us all. Rituals still exist in our culture, in how we bury our dead, for instance—a shovelful of dirt, a particular prayer, stones on the grave—but for many of us, the rites have lost their vibrancy and impact in helping us deal with grief.

Rebecca Edwards/Used with permission
The Naturalist's Childhood by Rebecca Edwards (2015)
Source: Rebecca Edwards/Used with permission

One of Carl Jung’s great gifts to depth psychology and to understanding the psyche, in general, was his lifelong exploration of symbols and their meaning for our development as individuals. His break with Freud issued in part from how the two men understood the meaning of symbols. Jung disagreed with Freud in seeing symbols as representing more than repressed sexuality or reducible to a known quality (i.e., snake=penis). For Jung, a true symbol was not formulaic but more like a riddle, paradoxical and mysterious, not easily decisively defined. For Jung, it was precisely this unknowable and indefinable aspect that made the symbol a vehicle for connecting with what he called the numinosum, the experience of confronting a tremendous and compelling force, as when a person experiences the presence of the divine. Just as a great poem cannot necessarily be parsed or reduced to a single idea, so too with symbols. They are shape-shifters, opening up to us aspects of Self, which in our daily lives often remain hidden.

Jung believed our soul hungers for a symbolic life, which lives in all humans and is available to us through dreams, fantasies, and creative work. The symbols that emerge from these avenues have the potential, if not the function, to heal us, but not if they remain dormant and unattended. It is through our conscious engagement with personal symbols that we coax them into meaning and bring new aliveness, self-awareness, and wisdom into our waking lives.

“Soul hunger” often calls to us during a crisis or a turning point. We might say to ourselves: I can’t keep doing this. Or, I need to make a change. Or, I’ve come to a dead end. What we are asking for, what the soul hunger conveys is its desire for a new attitude, a new perspective, new possibilities and opportunities that will lead us into fresh territory. You might say our soul is seeking intervention from a source outside the ego, from the nameless beyond.

Therapy, friendship, meditation, exercise may help us process our situation, but we are sometimes left with a hollowness they do not fill. If we have experienced loss, for instance, we may speak about it in concrete details, its cause and effect, but we may also seek out poetry or ritual to express the inchoate feelings that sweep through us and leave us touched and confused. Here is where symbols can reflect back to us the wholeness of our experience, as in this poem by Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz.

Encounter

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

“Encounter,” translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee, from The Collected Poems 1931-1987 by Czeslaw Milosz. (The Ecco Press, 1988) Copyright © 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc.

What starts in the first couplet as a description of a personal experience becomes, at the poem’s conclusion, an evocation of loss that holds hands with a marvel at life’s swift passing. The poem bridges the symbolic and the real, the personal and universal, and points to the very human experience of transience and uncertainty.

To believe in the things we carry is to believe we are not powerless to influence our fate. One way of getting to know ourselves better is to be curious about the objects we select to surround us, our own private curated collections. The exercise I’m about to suggest is not about fixing ourselves but about trying to know ourselves in a new way.

Look around your home. What objects stand out for you? Which do you return to? Do they have a value other than utilitarian? In what way might they define your inner life? Do any of these objects transport you to another time or place? What feelings are evoked there? Working with our psyche from the inside out proposes an alternative or complement to the insurance-driven therapeutic models currently in vogue.

Here’s an example of how this exercise might go: You notice a big conch shell on a shelf. You pick it up and remember the gift store in Florida where you bought it—a nice memory. You hold the shell to your ear. The sound of a distant sea carries you back to another memory, the first time your father held a shell to your ear and you felt his love and wonder pour into you. You then remember that he became sick shortly after that experience and died months later. Now you are standing in your living room with the conch to your ear and realizing it is on your shelf for a reason that you haven’t acknowledged. It is a symbolic bridge to your dear father and to a time when you felt his love.

If you are inclined, keep a journal of the “things you carry” and the feelings, images, memories, insights they inspire. If this makes you feel vulnerable, remember that feeling vulnerable is a sign that you’ve uncovered an important self-truth. Acknowledging vulnerability is an act of courage and connects you with the human tribe.

Recommended for further reading:

The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings by Carl Gustav Jung
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien         
Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality by Jon Elster
Highlights of the Historical Dimension of Analysis by Marie-Louise von Franz