The Diderot Effect at Christmas

Who are you? What makes you who you are? Imagine you were inviting someone you just met over to your house. Except that you emptied your house of everything. You just had them come over, sit in a metal fold-out chair beside you. Oh, and your clothes are gone, except for a uniform you had to wear to a job. Now how will you tell this person who you are? How self-conscious would you feel about who they thought you were?

The things we own, the things we use and surround ourself with, become a part of who we are. We let them speak for who we are, even to ourselves. When people gift us with things, they tend to gift us things based on who they think we are. Sometimes they’re right; sometimes they’re wrong.

So this guy named Denis Diderot wrote an essay way back in the 1700s called “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or A Warning To Those Who Have More Taste Than Money.” The premise of the essay is this—someone gave him a brand new gown to replace his old one. He was so thankful. Only, now this new gown was so fancy compared to all his other possessions that he went on a spending spree, purchasing new possessions whose luxury would match that of his new gown. He went into serious debt and was miserable. He wrote,

s-l225I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of my new one.”

Thus the term, The Diderot Effect, which operates two principles:

  1. Everything you buy (or ask for others to buy for you) is something you hope to be consistent with who you are and who you see yourself as, which includes the things you already own.
  2. New things you buy, or, in the case of times like Christmas, things people buy for you, can trigger you into a crisis in which you feel compelled to purchase more other things to make your belongings more consistent with this new thing.

The obvious problem is materialism, and the obvious solution is to define your identity apart from what is merely material, so that the gain or loss of possessions does not threaten your sense of self.

Of course, it’s all easier said than done. We live in a material world. Madonna knows that. But we want to show we’re not materialist by giving materials to other people, not ourselves. However, we all know that the more we give, the more we receive. Underneath our selfless giving is sometimes this underwritten expectation that we will get. And we get. Sometimes we even expect people to change who they are.

Somebody gives you a new coat. Now your pants don’t look so hot. You need to get yourself a new pair. Good things there’s a sale at Old Navy after Christmas. And you also find a scarf on sale. Someone else gave you a ticket to a Steelers game. Now you’ll need to get that new hat everyone is wearing, even if it’s just for one game. You have to fit in when you’re in the stands. You were given Fallout 4. But wait. You haven’t played Fallout 3 yet. Or the spinoff, Fallout 3: New Vegas. Bethesda also makes that Skyrim game. That any good?

Before long you begin your new year with a new you, not the one you promised yourself you would be, but the one you became because of your gifts and the self-giving you indulged in.

Diderot laments, “No one knows who I am.” At Christmas time, sometimes we (even unintentionally) deceive the society around us into assuming there is something we want as a gift that we do not want at all. We even deceive ourselves. Recipient’s remorse.

But you can’t throw away a luxurious item, especially if it’s a gift. So you either deal with it, or you give in to the urge to buy yourself a whole new set of….you. Maybe you welcome new gifts as an excuse to remake yourself via your belongings. Maybe we can’t wait for Christmas, because we get to define ourselves. And even our loved ones.

“Here honey. I got you this exercise machine. (Lose weight.)” “Here’a gift card to that new spa/nail place. (Your feet are disgusting.)” “Here’s a new phone. (On this one I can track where you are.)”

When you purchase people things (which you likely already have), ask yourself why you’re really getting that thing for them. And when you receive, be very wary of how it will seek to transform you by urging you to purchase, purchase, purchase.

That new _______ you got it: What is it to you? Are you going to let it define you? Did you ask for it? Why did you ask for it? Would you be okay with losing it? How does it change how you view the rest of the things you own—more importantly, how you view yourself.

Words from the end of Diderot’s essay:
“Don’t fear that the mad desire to stock up beautiful things has taken control of me. The friends I had I sill have, and their number hasn’t grown.”

An ambiguous reassurance. No man is a failure who has friends. I think an angel said that once. In a movie, no less.

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