Saying Goodbye to Useful Things: Accessible Inquiries Into the Nature of Being

This wasn’t supposed to be the way I started this series of posts, but something happened to me this week which prompted a fairly light blog, and I thought it might be nice to share it before I get into the ‘harder stuff’ in the coming weeks. I have spent the past two months reading Martin Heidegger’s epic ontological masterpiece Being and Time, and so have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of our existence, our relation to other human beings and the way our experience of life concerns the manner in which we encounter ‘things’ in the world.

We make sense of our lives through these ‘ready-to-hand’ things, as Heidegger terms them. “Handiness is the ontological categorial definition of beings as they are in themselves,” he writes. These ‘handy’ beings are useful to us – they have a utility. We use them to help us do things and this gives them their character – it gives them their relevance. We take care of them and we concern ourselves with them in a way in which they matter to us. Not always. But sometimes they really mean a lot – way more than they should. They become more than the sum of their parts; they become treasured; they become a part of us – a part of our being. Whether it’s tools, utensils, cooking instruments, furniture, vehicles, clothes, hair brushes, an old mug – whatever. These useful things help us to live our lives and we appreciate them – even though they’re just mere ‘things’.

Three-quarters is the magic number

I recently said goodbye to a pair of Umbro three-quarter-length jogging bottoms which mattered to me. I realise that sounds utterly stupid. I realise this is beyond pathetic. But I bloody loved those tiny trousers. And when I took them out of the tumble dryer the other day and realised to what extent they were falling apart, I have to admit, I was a little heartbroken. I knew their time had come. It was the end of the road for my beloved hybrid bottoms (neither trousers nor shorts). After the best part of 20 years of service, my old faithful Umbros were no longer a useful-thing-at-hand; they were redundant. The nature of their being had changed. And I could perhaps try to fix them, amend them or try to somehow retrieve their original mode of being in some way, but for myriad reasons, it just felt like the time was right to retire them.

So why was it with such a heavy heart that I decided those three-quarter-lengths were no longer available for active service? Why did I feel so duty-bound and emotionally tied to this relatively cheap pair of trousers – which should really have been binned years ago? Let me just point out at this juncture that it is the very three-quarter-lengthy-ness of these bottoms which makes them so special. Sometimes a full-length trouser is just a bit cloying for lounge wear; just as sometimes a pair of shorts is too exposed – say, if perhaps the room temperature is just a touch below what one finds comfortable.

Nothing compares to you

There’s just something about a good three-quarter-length bottom that offers an optimum leg-coverage ratio, provides an adequate level of comfort and yet still gives one’s ankles and lower legs a freedom to breathe in warmer conditions that really appeals. And those Umbro babies were blessed with other practical elements of their being which made them even more special – including zip pockets and toggles at the bottom for tightening potential. Unfortunately, after years of usage which didn’t just include lounging but also featured running, playing football and various other sporting endeavours, the molecular integrity of the gusset began to be compromised. Many a Christmas has been spent in the company of in-laws and other extended family members where my genitals have been far too close to exposure due to the dubious lining of those bottoms.

Now, I am acutely aware how ridiculous this all is. I did, of course, at one point purchase a new pair of three-quarter-lengths. A Puma pair to be exact. They were also black and they’ve done a fine job of deputising for the Umbros when they were out of commission (in the wash). But they’re just not the same. The elastic around the waist isn’t as tight and springy, the pockets have no zips and they just don’t feel as homely. They’re not as comfortable, they don’t smell the same and they haven’t got the same aura. They don’t feel as worn; they aren’t embedded with the same history.

I’m 36 years old this year and I believe I’ve owned the Umbros since around the age of 17 – when I was in sixth form. Those Umbros have been to university with me, they’ve been to several Glastonburys with me, and many other festivals. They’ve been with me on adventures across Europe and they’ve been with me throughout all the serious relationships I’ve had in my adult life. Whenever I had a trip coming up, they’d be one of the first items I’d pack. No matter where you are going or what you are doing, you always try to take a little slice of home with you – you always try to recreate that homeliness wherever else you might be. It helps to keep anxiety and feelings of uncanniness at bay and ensures that we retain that sense of ‘care’ about the world that is so important to Heidegger in Being and Time.

Home is where the care is

Heidegger’s concept of care (sorge in German) is something I will go on to explore in much more detail throughout this blog series. But Heidegger believed that care is essentially the meaning of our human being. We care for and are concerned about the world around us, other human beings (with Dasein, as he calls human existence) and the innerwordly things around us. Dasein is in terms of what it takes care of. And these things-at-hand are something that we take care of. This familiarity with the world and its contents comes about from our will to take care of them – to not only acknowledge them, but to appreciate them.

I know it sounds odd, but I really cared about those three-quarter-length Umbros. Okay – never in the same way as someone or something that’s actually ‘alive’. But their usefulness and their attachment to many memories gave them a kind of relevance and distinction that made their being something beyond any ordinary useful-thing-at-hand. They were special to me. Heidegger believed that Dasein (human existence) dwells in taking care. And it is exactly this reliability, familiarity and homeliness that helped those trousers – such an insignificant being in the grand scale of things – provide me with an element of care. They brought comfort when I needed it – and they never let me down. Well, only other than the occasional slip – if you know what I mean…

19 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to Useful Things: Accessible Inquiries Into the Nature of Being

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s those things which have never failed us that deserve even more sentimental attachment. They’ve earned our respect and admiration with their faultless service! 🤣🙌🏻

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    1. Thanks for your kind words. I think it’s good to let go of these things when their time has come. I definitely held on to those bottoms too long. But they did such a great job for me and I’ll always appreciate them?

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    1. Thanks LeTara 💜 I still haven’t properly replaced them but I’m on holiday next week, so perhaps it’s time to go big and get some of the comfiest three quarters ever worn 🤣🤣

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  1. Wow, you really loved those shorts. In fact, I have never seen so much thought go into short length before. I commend you for gathering the strength to finally retire them and that’s mostly because I too, am around 36 and seem to recall Umbro being a popular name brand until no later than the late 90s.

    Believe me, I’m not judging you since my favorite pair of pants are fuzzy leggings from Walmart. Many people even believe it’s unethical to shop at Walmart and that only the lowest-class buy clothes from there so…again no judgment. Just saying. Lol.

    But I don’t know if it was wrong for you to be attached to those shorts. They were perfect for you and you got tons of use from them. I would say repairing them wouldn’t have been wrong either. Not unhealthy at all, sheerly practical.

    We have an ingrained nature that we’re born with that draws us to situations of familiarity and comfort (e.g. children often love the smell of their mother long after their nursing days have ended; they may snuggle with an item that has her scent on it) and although in theory, we could evolve past this nature if we made the effort, it’s often beneficial and part of who we are.

    I consider myself a moderate minimalist; and after considering the overall question of your post I suppose it’s OK to be attached or fond of things while they’re useful, as long as it’s not in the same sense that’d we’d be attached to other people or pets, of course.

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    1. Great shouts all round Rachel. And to be honest, I’m quite a minimalist. I get a bit flustered when I have too much superfluous crap lying around and regularly have ‘spring cleans’.

      It’s definitely good to keep the belongings to a minimum – my most treasured are probably my guitars. But I’m not really a collector – and that’s a whole different ball game! 🙌🏻💜🤣

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