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  • Max Stearns

Collecting's Existential Crisis

This post is inspired by my sister, Wendy Bornstein, who wrote a beautiful blogpost on the challenges that she and I faced in dealing with our parents' estate after my father and mother passed away in 2013 and 2015, respectively (see My parents never had much money, and finances were always tight when my sister and I were growing up. My mother was a teacher by training and for her early career, and my father, whose formal education ended with an Associates Degree (a two-year degree) in General Studies at Boston University, worked in sales for most of his career, until he suffered a disability. His real avocation was separate from his work. He was a self-taught historian, and a collector. He amassed an enormous and eclectic collection, thousands and thousands of catalogued objects and documents. In my eulogy to him, I described it as follows:

"Dad’s collection includes an extensive library of books on American and ancient Jewish history, with many first editions and autographed books; ancient Jewish, Roman, Greek and Egyptian artifacts; ancient and modern coins, every Presidents’ autograph; dinosaur eggs; replica harpoons; historical ephemera; and in depth collections focused on particular Presidents including Abraham Lincoln, and especially his beloved Thomas Jefferson. And this merely scratches the surface of over thirty separate yet extensive collections that occupy a lovely, if relatively modest three-bedroom condominium in the gulf coast of Florida."

My sister's post discusses the serious problems that she and I confronted, with Wendy doing far more of the actual leg work, in ridding the modest condominium in which they lived in their later years of the thousands and thousands of books, collectables, documents, memorability, and tchotchkes. As my father got older, his capacity to record, maintain, and integrate did not keep pace with his enthusiasm for acquiring. My sister attributes our father's desire to collect, in part, to his having been a post-Depression baby, and his wish to leave something meaningful and physical, a remarkable collection, to his children. Wendy's blogpost explains the considerable difficulties that such a mindset, however well intended, creates for the children who have to deal with what's been left behind.

I hope you will read her thoughtful post, linked above, which is also informed by her perspective of a realtor. Here are some of my reflections:

As Wendy points out, my parents had two children, and we each have three. Over time, there will, we hope, be more children in future generations. On the upside, this means a larger denominator in forecasting the division of such a collection, but the downside is that a collection like my father's has an integrity unto itself that this very division destroys. Some families have the good fortune to be able to convey the collection, with sufficiently valuable content, to a museum. This requires a level of quality--rare paintings, pristine artifacts with perfect provenance, perfectly preserved historical documents--that most collectors, and I have met quite a few, simply cannot afford. We were unable to entice most museums that we contacted to take the contents as a gift. The most rarified collectors, those who have also amassed enormous wealth, can create their own museums. We could not. Our collection suffered an existential crisis, one that my father must have understood intellectually, but that he must also have found difficult to reconcile emotionally.

The second lesson returns to a theme of several earlier posts. When teaching social choice, I explain that group preferences cycle when three or more persons hold specific non-majoritarian preferences (Person 1: ABC; Person 2: BCA; Person 3: CAB), that combined to reveal an intransitivity (A preferred to B preferred to C preferred to A) (see Dimensionality and its Discontents, I have increasingly come to realize that individuals can exhibit a similar cycling dynamic on their own. For this, we can get by without help from our friends (see

Here's how it works:

Step 1: I realize that I cannot absorb the entire collection into my home, and so I plan to convey it, either by gift, if possible, or sale.

Step 2: I then realize that I want to have a remembrance, and so I plan to keep selected special items, those that have the most meaning, within or across collections.

Step 3: I further realize that the collection (and the various sub-collections) has its own integrity, and represent a cohesive whole that is compromised if divided up, and so if I take a part, I must take the whole.

Step 4: I realize that I cannot take the entire collection, and so I plan to convey it . . . . .

The cycle is complete. Wendy and I experienced this, over and over. Indeed, I think that this sort of cognitive cycling typically goes by a more familiar name: anxiety. We eventually settled on a variation of Step 2, but probably as much, if not more, through having been worn down by it all than by having thought through some well conceived plan. We experienced what political scientists, Kenneth Shepsle and Barry Weingast, call a "structure induced equilibrium," see, but this time with our endurance, or simple exhaustion, setting the limiting principle, rather than some elaborate set of congressional committees or rules. Collections are wonderful for those who enjoy them; they can be a source of stress for those left to cope with what remains.

In the end, there are some important lessons here. Both my parents loved their children and grandchildren and meant extremely well. My father viewed his truly impressive collection as a legacy, one that would carry on and in which his family would take great pride. My father's father passed away when my father was only 16, leaving him with many challenges. My children and my sister's children take great pride in their grandparents, including my dad and his collection. But for all of us, the real pride is less about what he amassed than what it represented, a dedicated lifetime of learning, deep curiosity, and a desire to connect with others through something he was passionate about. We all love what excites us. We can't make others love what we love. We are each our own person, and enthusiasm for a thing, or things, or even for an academic discipline, is not hereditary. The best we can do is create pathways for our children to thrive. For that, the path needs to be clear, unobstructed by clutter. And on the upside, when we rid ourselves of such wonderful things, others who share the childlike enthusiasm that defined my father's passion will get to enjoy those things he so heartily collected.

Wendy has written poignantly about purging, It's not my strong suit, but I'm learning. I do know this: Getting rid of things makes way for a clearer focus on what truly matters.

As always, I welcome your comments.

#ExistentialCrises #Purging #CognitiveCycling #Anxiety #Stress #WendyBornstein #KennethShepsle #BarryRWeingast #StructureInducedEquilibrium

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