The mystery of things

I recently purchased a book about famed Australian artist, Margaret Olley. In that book I read these words, penned by Lou Klepac; “if we stopped judging objects by their practical usefulness, we might discover the mystery of things and not be restricted by the logical, practical world in which we strive to survive physically.”

Those words arrested me and invited me to reflect. What does he mean by ‘practical usefulness’ and the ‘mystery of things’? I would like to share some of my thoughts to date with you, but insist that I’m not done with thinking about these ideas. If you have any reflections of your own to share with me, I would love to hear them.

Just a jug

Let’s begin with the practical usefulness of things. To be honest, I don’t think much about things. I see something on the bench and I think ‘a jug’. That’s its label, its name. It’s used for collecting water that I put into my coffee machine. I use it, then put it away till next time. If it’s on the bench, that means I forgot to put it away.

Lots of things in my world exist like that jug. I seldom think about what they are other than what they can do for me. The jug allows me to get water from the tap and put it conveniently into the coffee machine.

What can this do for me?

But this says more about how I think than it does about anything else. I look at things and think; how can I use this? What can this thing do for me? What’s in it for me? I assess the utility of an object according to 4 criteria. Let me explain.

Performance utility

I may assess it according to its performance utility. A question here may be, how will this thing help me perform certain tasks better? That’s really the question I ask when I think about the jug. What’s the best way to get water from the tap to the coffee machine? Use the jug. Then put it away.

Emotional value

I may assess it according to its emotional value to me. A question here may be, how will this thing help me look and feel better about who I am or who I want to be? It is this consideration that affects how I dress, what car I would like to drive, or where I like to live.

Strategic value

I may assess it according to its strategic value to me. A question here may be; how will this thing help me achieve my goals? This is one of the reasons people go back to college or university and up their training – things like courses and credentials help us achieve our goals.

Potential flow

I may assess it according to its flow potential. A question here may be; how will this thing make my life easier or better? Sometimes a thing enhances the quality of our lives in some way and makes them better.

Entrapped in self-interest

I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong with this pragmatic perspective where I judge objects according to their practical usefulness to me. But it holds some potential dangers and it may entrap me in the world of my own self-interest. There is the danger that I may extend the category of ‘thing’ to include not just objects, but also people. I become unbalanced and narcissistic when I start thinking about people according to their performance utility, emotional value, strategic importance, and flow potential to me. This is how I see people as objects to serve me rather than subjects to serve with.

Klepac is calling us to free ourselves from the prison of self-interest and open ourselves to different ways of seeing the world around us. Things don’t exist just to further our own selfish projects. Let’s consider a few ways in which we might get a glimpse of the ‘mystery of things’.

Opening to beauty

Things have a right to have a beauty of their own. Those new shoes or clothes you like aren’t just there to make you look and feel good. They have a beauty all their own. Someone else has had the idea to combine colours, textures, materials, and design in ways that bring you joy. The things that make you feel good are an expression of another person’s creativity and their eye for beauty.

The arts invite us to appreciate beauty in how language is used in poetry or prose, how sounds are composed to produce soul-touching music, or how images transport us to other times and places. There is beauty in the simple rendering of a complex and abstract idea. This beauty may not have a practical usefulness to us, but it can take us out of our cocoon and make our lives richer in the process.

Shared meanings

Things also have meanings – not just our personal meanings, but wider, shared meanings. The jug I use is more than a simple convenience. Its basic design has echoes of the first jugs crafted from clay by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Its design is shaped by ideas of functionalism reminiscent of the 20th century, and shares much in common with other such objects. The object is the product of much more than a factory in China – it represents and carries within it ideas from many people across many centuries. If I simply reduce this object down to its utilitarian value to me, I miss the richness and mystery of the thing.

Objectifying people

I could go on, but I think I have said enough. I have pointed out how I normally function – in the cocoon of my own project. I look at things in terms of what they can do for me. But I am reminded by Klepac of the potential dangers and limitations of my position. Do I, do you, sometimes judge people according to their practical usefulness? To do so is to objectify them and to lock me even further into a limited worldview. When I begin to see things as having a life outside my practical use for them, I become drawn into a bigger story and I begin to see the part I play in it.

I hope these thoughts are useful to someone. I will continue to think on them, but if you have engaged with these ideas, I would love to hear your thoughts too.

Written by Steve Barlow

“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Andy Warhol