It started with Mary Poppins. After his children inadvertently cause a riot at the bank where he works, Mr. Banks is fired. More than that, he is shamed. The glowering old men he works for have his umbrella turned inside out, his hat punched through.
I hated this scene. I knew it was just a hat and an umbrella, and I knew that Mr. Banks would suffer briefly only to rediscover the joy of spending time with the loving family his job had kept him too busy for. I knew this, but I couldn’t stand to watch. Because I also knew it was more than just a hat and an umbrella. Mr. Banks lost the material icons of “success” as he understood them. The twinge in my stomach was from a deep understanding that those horrid men were not just mussing his accessories, they were clawing at his sense of self. They, the sneering and unsympathetic powers-that-be, were blind to his humanity, indifferent to the wretchedness of the culture they presided over, in which Mr. Banks could only feel like a proper husband, father, and man with a certain kind of hat and a certain kind of job.
Maybe I read too much into that scene, but as a pretty young child my reaction to it had a dramatic and visceral quality that made my stomach ache.
I still hate these sorts of scenes in movies, when a character (even a relatively unsympathetic one) loses some silly treasure that they took pride in.
I’m not much into material objects myself. I have my own little treasures, of course, but I’ve trained myself very well to always imagine their imminent disappearance and my subsequent calm reaction to their absence. I left a favorite teddy bear on a school bus in 1st or 2nd grade. The next day the bus driver held it up and asked who it belonged to. I was shy and sitting towards the back and said nothing. I passed the little bear on my way off the bus, but there were kids in front and behind me moving at a steady pace. The bus driver didn’t look at me as I approached and so I kept moving, silent. The bear made no more appearances on the bus, and my mom assured me that he had probably found a safe and happy home with the bus driver’s own children.
I thought about that bear a lot. I had personified a very sad, abandoned stuffed animal, and I regretted my own absurd inability to get him back. I resolved that it was important to be at peace with the absence of objects. Even if Mr. Banks was proud of his hat and umbrella he ought to be comfortable with their impermanence. If he and I could just let those items go we could save ourselves some pain.
Still, we all cling to items for comfort. I can’t take the sad fact that little items of delight get taken away by brutal fate. Very early on I accepted impermanence as a condition of the material things in my life, but I can’t demand the same decades of trained indifference from others. Their suffering hurts. I wish they could keep their treasures.
We cling to items, to titles, to things we cannot control. We allow them to define us. And then they are taken away, with or without malice, by the churning of time and the hands of others. We forget how to find wholeness without those external things. We are ashamed to find ourselves so stripped.
In the wake of the spectacular WorldCom cluster-f#*% my father lost his job with the company where he had worked for over twenty years. My parents, in their mid-40s, lost their entire retirement savings. My father shrugged. Too bad, he said, but he had his family and that’s what mattered. I’m sure he was hurt by the whole mess, but to my father the hat was just a hat, the umbrella just an umbrella.
There is no shame in losing mere objects.