I recently dropped more than $1,000 on a pair of Italian-made Saint Laurent Chelsea boots. They’re beautiful. They’d been on my mind for years. And now they’re the most expensive thing I’ve ever kept in my closet.
Two months ago, I never would have bought them. Two months ago, I had Chelsea boots—five pairs actually, though none held a candle to the 1.1-inch heeled, black calfskin boots I now own.
Yeah, two months ago I had a lot of things. I had 31-years worth of things I’d accumulated and curated; you know how one does. I had spent time finding things I loved; that were me. Along with the many pairs of boots, a couch, a queen-sized bed, and a 45-inch TV (objects that money can replace), I had decades worth of invaluable things—an African mask from my father’s youthful trip to Ghana, his Morehouse College sweatshirt that had faded just right with time—all passed down to me when he died.
On July 4 it was all stolen.
My partner, Grace, and I woke up around 7 a.m. on the Fourth of July after a scorching Sunday spent packing everything we collectively owned into a 15-foot Uhaul truck. We had planned to hit the road and drive the 1,225 miles from Kansas City, Mo., to our new apartment in East Harlem. But we didn’t go anywhere that day.
Nothing but broken glass remained under the streetlamp on the busy street where we’d parked the Uhaul. We opened the front door of the apartment building in a whirlwind of confusion, desperation, and anger: Had we parked it somewhere else? Had the Uhaul been towed? Nah, the contents of our lives were just gone.
More than 100 vinyl records, many passed down from my late father, photos of late nights and meandering days, family snapshots, letters shared between friends and old loves, ticket stubs and other miscellaneous memorabilia. The journals my partner had kept since she was 12. Vintage clothes we’d lovingly collected, a first edition copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, gifted to me during my days as race and equity editor at The Kansas City Star.
We lost things of significant value, things of little to no value, and things you simply can’t put a price on.
All that was left were seven houseplants, a twin air mattress, a bag of clothes each, and our 3-year-old cat, Gizmo.
I was angry at first. I was angry when I called 911 and sat on hold for seven minutes. I was angry when Uhaul told me that if we didn’t have a police report and the truck wasn’t found, we might be liable for the cost. I was angry when, while filing the police report, the desk clerk asked me to make a list of everything that was stolen, complete with serial numbers and the monetary values.
How do you make a list of everything you own? How do you put a value on the stuff of life?
I thought that anger would turn into resentment and lead me to rebuke all material things. What’s the point of investing; of tying your life up in things if they can just be taken from you in a matter of minutes while you sleep?
To my surprise, I did not turn my back on all that is material in this world. Once the anger subsided, I actually had the opposite reaction.
The psychologist William James stumped for the idea of the material self: that our possessions, the things we label “mine,” are extensions of ourselves and our identities. More than just a piece of us was ripped away in the wee hours of the Fourth of July.
I’ve always felt a little guilty for wanting nice things. I felt a sort of misplaced sense of pride and an undue sense of importance when I wanted the best—or most expensive—thing: my speaker setup, milk frother, sneakers, leather bag, pens, whatever. I was bashful, not boastful, when it came to owning nice things. But I’d regularly sit at home, look around at the things I’d accumulated and relish the life I felt I’d created for myself. At the same time, I kind of always thought I was being silly. Did other people do this?
I grew up lower-middle class. But even as a little guy, I always gravitated toward the most expensive item on the menu. It was always commented on and the feelings of shame would start.
I don’t know that I would have ever spent $1,000 on one pair of Chelsea boots before the Uhaul was stolen. That would have been too much. That would have been the most expensive thing on the menu, and someone would have had something to say about it. I’m acutely aware there are people around me who struggle just to pay rent. Who am I to splurge at such cost? But in losing everything, my feelings about the value of stuff changed.
In 2017, four University of Cambridge professors from varying disciplines published a blog post on why things matter as an introduction to a month-long focus on research that set out to explain “why understanding how we interact with our material world can reveal unparalleled insights into what it is to be human.”
They wrote: “We express and understand our identities through clothing, cars, and hobbies. We create daily routines and relate to each other through houses and workplaces. We imagine place, history, and political regimens through sculptures and paintings.
“Throughout the humanities and social sciences, there is a long tradition of thinking principally about meaning and human intention,” the post continues, “but scholars are now realizing the immense importance of material things in social life.”
I cite their words to hammer home a reality I’ve come to understand about me and my things—and maybe you can relate when you think of your things: It’s not silly, the value we place on them.
Not too long after everything was stolen, I giddily bought a vintage 1996 Atlanta Olympics T-shirt from someone on Depop. It was the first T-shirt I bought after moving back to New York. It can never replace my father’s Morehouse sweatshirt or the ‘90s-era Forces of Nature Dance Company shirt he owned. But this shirt represents something different.
It’s the first shirt I chose for myself after everything was taken. I lived in Atlanta in the ‘90s and went to that Olympics. My brother was born in 1996. To me, the shirt is worth more than the $15 I spent on it. That feeling goes for just about everything I own now. Every purchase is made with intention and takes on new context. It all has meaning.
Grace recently turned 30, and we talked about how reaching a new decade brings a fresh wave of “Who am I?” questions. Couple that with a cross-country move, new jobs, and the loss of all our material belongings, and who wouldn’t have a full-blown identity crisis? But these dramatic changes have also brought some degree of clarity. I would argue that just about all of who we are is tied up in the work we do, the people we keep around us, and the things we treasure.
I’m not sure when the anger subsided, but the resentment still hasn’t set in. I still get random pangs, missing my Jordan 1s or a notebook filled with bits and pieces of unwritten books and screenplays, and I don’t know that I can say any one of those is more or less valuable than the other.
I’ll never say I’m happy this happened to me, but I’ve come to appreciate that the experience has required me to reconsider my relationship to stuff. I no longer feel shame for allowing material things to define me. I put so much of who I am in the things I own, and I get to decide to spend however much money I want to obtain and treasure them.
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