Personal Attachments to Inanimate Objects
The other day, Jenn, my personal trainer, told me about her nephew, Teddy, and his attachment to a NYC Marathon bear she recently gave him. Given Teddy’s family lives in Boston, they opted to name the coco brown bear after Desiree Linden who won the 2018 Boston Marathon. “Desi” almost never leaves the toddler’s side. Jenn’s brother, Jon, sent her a video to prove the point.
This is how the scene played out. When the 16-month-old Teddy starts to get cranky, Jon likes to jokingly taunt him with an array of different toys. “Do you want your yellow duck?” Jenn’s nephew shakes his head “no.” “Do you want your blue whale?” Teddy becomes visibly agitated. “Do you want your green alligator?” Then, the toddler vocalizes his frustration with a crescendo of piercing squeals. Finally, Daddy Jon slyly asks his son—who, as we see on the video is on the verge of a meltdown— “Do you want Desi?” pointing to the bear in a tomato-red shirt. At which point, Teddy’s face lights up and he starts lifting his legs high, one at a time, like a child’s version of an Irish step dance. Jon hands him Desi which his son cuddles tightly to his little chest.
Preparing for the inevitable
Jenn’s brother, anticipating the mayhem should the bear ever be lost, asked her to get him a back-up bear. Alas, she came up empty handy. No more NYC Marathon bears left, not even on the Internet. However, Jenn eventually tracked down the manufacturer who confirmed that all the bears with the red jersey were gone. However, the sales representative—probably herself a parent who understood the potential threat of a beloved bear gone AWOL—said she’d investigate the situation.
Two days later, right before Christmas, a box was delivered to Jenn’s brother. In it was a sloth of eight differently-sized bears, all resembling the favored Desi. While none of them wore a red T-shirt, one of them was the exact same size and colored fur but with a blue top. The generous gift, which was offered free-of-charge from the manufacturer, did not go unnoticed. Clearly, Santa is all-knowing and works in magical and mysterious ways. And, what an unexpected gift for Teddy’s grateful parents.
Research has shown, however, that small children are leery of substitutes and notice all the small differences. Chance are—unless Teddy is color-blind—his parents may experience some form of hysteria when they swap out Desi with the bear wearing the blue jersey instead of a red one!
What causes a child’s personal preferences of an object?
This story made me wonder why this bear, more than any other of Teddy’s plush toys, captivated his attention? What causes the early obsessions of a child? How does this change as the child matures? Do we as adults have similar personal attachments to inanimate objects which we rely on to sooth us in stressful situations or provide emotional support?
Investigating Teddy’s obsession while delving into child development superficially at best, I learned a few things. For Teddy the bear represents various aspects of love—all of which are embodied in his mother—security, safety, dependency and comfort. Like a coveted blanket or pacifier, this security object, in a way, loves him back. It also plays a transitional role as Teddy gradually gains independence from his mother. Thus, if the comforting object goes missing, the child risks being thrown into crisis mode. At this point of Teddy’s development, he relies on either his mother or Desi to maintain his “cool.”
Ever misplace your cell phone?
The same can be said for adults. You know what it is like when you misplace your cell phone, the grand-daddy of all personal attachments. Am I right? You go berserk when you can’t find it. Luckily, there are all sorts of apps for finding its location. If at home, I always take the quickest route and call myself being one of the remaining Americans with a land line phone.
Objects with have significance in one’s life
Adults can also have great affection for objects which trigger associations with people they love. Take for example, the cat’s eye ring my friend Karen Olaf received for her 16th birthday. She was living in Pittsburg at the time. Serendipitously, Karen was introduced to Alan Epshein, one of the city’s most knowledgeable jewelers. He took her under his wings and taught her how to discern the various quality levels of gem stones. When her parents presented her with a greenish-yellow cat’s eye ring encircled with tiny diamonds, she was ecstatic as she knew the gem was exceptional. Twenty years later, she reset it in a more modern style, but it remains her favorite piece of jewelry. Every time she wears it, she thinks of her parents with great fondness. But Karen also remembers Alan, the jeweler who played a significant role in developing her appreciation for fine jewelry. As she puts it, “Alan nurtured my love for beauty and to this day, thanks to him jewelry is my thing.”
Sometimes we collect objects because they have features which please us. People seek out the strangest things—such as the man who collected Coke cans—as it gives them satisfaction. Joan, my Italian class buddy, started collecting French lead crystal paper weights in 1991. She happened upon one by chance in an antique store, held it in her hand and was hooked. “I have to have this,” she said to herself. When Joan learned it cost $25,000, she cautiously handed it back to the dealer.
Joan later recounted this incident to a woman she met while on jury duty. Laura, her fellow juror, happened to be an art consultant with a very refined eye and impeccable taste. She knew all about handblown French crystal paper weights and assured Joan that not all of them were that excessively expensive. Laura introduced her to Gem Antiques, where over the years, Joan painstakingly selected most of her 30-piece collection.
Joan loves her paper weights because of their beauty and rarity. Only three companies in France ever produced them—Baccarat, St. Louis and Chiche—and then, just between 1849 and 1951. Joan’s passion for her collection is palpable. “What I love best, however, is their minuscule imperfections. A tiny flaw on the petal of a flower or a leaf shows that it was made by an artisan and not a machine. It is that human quality which gives me so much pleasure.”
Attaching human characteristics to an object
Both children and adults can anthropomorphize inanimate objects. They will take an everyday object and attach human characteristics to them. Take for example, Alfie, the stuffed monkey my husband bought me years ago on our first trip to France. From the beginning, I spoke to Alfie in French then gradually switched to English so that Ed could enjoy the playful banter. Ridiculous as it sounds, Alfie became a friend, someone who never contradicted me and always listened approvingly to whatever I said....or so I imagined.
Like Teddy’s NYC Marathon bear, Alfie is always close by at home. Ed and I also used to get a kick out of traveling with Alfie to witness other people’s reaction. Alfie accrued hundreds of airline miles accompanying us on our cruise down the Yangtze River and over the desert sands on back of a camel in Egypt. As Alfie has a fragile neck now, we no longer schlep him around the world but rather keep him on a special antique chair in our bedroom. I am still emotionally attached to Alfie even as a mature woman. Go ahead. Judge me if you dare.
We’re all like little Teddy
So, you see, adults are not that different from children. We, too, enjoy possessing objects which provide some level of emotional comfort. Bears, coke cans, or pieces of exquisite jewelry, they all serve to sooth us just as our mothers used to do when we were little. The human truth is that everyone finds solace in feeling good and being loved, even if it is only perceived love.