It wasn’t too long ago that I was downstairs picking up toys in our family room with our kids. It had gotten so messy that we had to call an emergency meeting to clean things up. From Fisher Price Little People to dolls, race cars and dress-up clothes, stuff was strewn everywhere. Most items have an appropriate bin or cupboard where they belong but making those matches is the hardest part.
Don’t Tell The Kids I Threw Away The Happy Meal Toy
A couple things always hit me when we pick up toys in our house: (a) We have a lot of toys. Too many toys if you ask me; (b) At least 50% of the toys get played with less than once a year; (c) Those once-a-year toys are amazingly someone’s favorites immediately after I say that’ I’m going to donate them to charity.
Before I get too upset, I have to concede that I might have a similar problem. I have a bin with old term papers, text books in out of the way bookshelves and at least one catch-all drawer with just plain junk. There’s about 12 pocket watches in various states of disrepair in another drawer, computer parts from the late 1990s in a shoe box and at least 3 pairs of 32″ waist jeans that I might be able to fit in again if I loose some weight (not likely). It’s kind of absurd to keep all this stuff around. I’m attached in equal measure to the nostalgia and low probability chance that I might need these things someday.
Looking through a pile of toys I had gathered to sort, I found a cheap plastic bobble-head Minion from the Despicable Me movies–my 6 year old clarified that it was Stuart the Minion. It was clearly something from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. I hadn’t ever seen anybody playing with it but I’m sure when that lucky kid pulled it from the glorious box of fiberless food that it was pretty exciting. I bet that it gave someone roughly 15 to 35 minutes of happiness until it got left for something else and swept away among all the other toys. And now here it is–washed back up on the carpet from who knows where and I’m gonna throw it away!
I must have had a look on my face because before I verbalized my intention for Stuart the Minion, my 6 year old said, “Dad, don’t throw that away. I was going to play with it.” Right, of course she was. As a complete 1989 Topps baseball card set is to me, cheap plastic kids meal toys are to my children: we nearly forget we have them but we can’t throw them away.
Attachments To Things
Are we too attached to our things? Probably. And although it’s tempting to just say yes, it’s probably worth considering what makes us happy and what might be an illusion of happiness. Tidying your space and minimal living are all very popular right now. But before Marie Kondo told us to get rid of things that do not speak to our hearts, there was Diogenes who got rid of everything he didn’t need and then badgered ancient Athens about it.
Diogenes Cleans House
Diogenes of Sinope lived somewhere between 404 and 323 BCE. He was likely a student of the philosopher Antisthenes and was known as a Greek Cynic. Diogenes came to Athens during the Golden Age and most of what we know of him comes from anecdotes from other people as none of his writings have survived. Read the following with your kids.
In his younger years, Diogenes lived in a wealthy family as his father made money as a banker. In one variation of the story about his younger years, it is said that Diogenes saw a dog walking down the street one day and noticed that it seemed to be doing whatever it pleased. If it saw something interesting on the side of the road, the dog would stop to investigate. The dog didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to get somewhere and likely had nobody expecting it. Diogenes observed that the dog had no possessions, didn’t care how it was perceived by others and had nothing to care for. It seemed to be perfectly content and totally free.
Diogenes thought that it was the lack of possessions that made the dog happy and so he left his home, his slaves and most of what he had behind and went to Athens. One legend contends that Diogenes arrived in Athens with a slave named Manes. Manes took advantage of being in the big city of Athens and escaped from his master. Diogenes didn’t go after him and didn’t seem to care much at all. He is reported to have said: “if Manes can live without Diogenes, Diogenes can certainly live without Manes.”
Diogenes settled in Athens but not in a fancy house. He moved into what has been described as either a large wooden bathtub or wine cask just outside the city walls. He lived off the charity of others and owned nothing other than a cloak and a cup. Even the cup he quickly got rid of after he saw a boy drinking water from his hands and realized he didn’t really even need that either. He reportedly exclaimed: “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!” Another legend is that he was further inspired by watching a mouse which went about it’s life much like the dog: without any of the “things” that burden humans.
The Kanye West of Ancient Athens
Diogenes made himself quite the celebrity in Athens with his odd and unpredictable behavior. Rather than teaching in a school, Diogenes became known for teaching by example. He lived his ideas of virtuous self-control, the rejection of luxuries and avoiding anything that wasn’t completely necessary in life such as personal possessions and social status. But interestingly, Diogenes’ notoriety came from his reputation for outlandish social behavior. For example:
He occasionally tormented the philosopher Plato, who referred to Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad.” Plato had once described humans in one of his lectures at the Academy as a “featherless biped.” Diogenes, having a Kanye West moment to interrupt, decided to pluck all the feathers off a chicken and bring it into Plato’s Academy during one of his lectures. He walked in and announced loudly, “Behold! Plato’s human being!” and then released the chicken. Later Plato and the Academy adjusted their description of a human being to also include “with broad flat nails” to the definition.
Diogenes would often challenge social rules such as eating in public. Sometimes he would attend Plato’s lectures while eating his lunch. On another occassion he went to the market in Athens and began eating. He was accused of being a “dog” to which Diogenes replied, “it is you who are dogs, for you all gather and stare while I am eating my breakfast.”
According to Diogenes, Athens and society in general was trapped in this ridiculous self-made reality which encouraged shallow values and had no idea what truth was. Social rules and classes were lifeless–a distraction to real truth and virtue. He believed that people pretended to be something in public that they were not in private. And rather than write about his distaste for society, he went out and pushed back against it. These beliefs are probably what led to Diogenes famously walking around Athens in broad daylight holding a lantern up to the faces of people saying he was “looking for a true human being.”
There is a good chance that people in Athens thought he was crazy or attention-seeking but Diogenes believed that he was living a true and honest life. His behavior was to challenge others to have the courage to change as well.
Is It Better To Be The Emperor? Or The Guy Who Lives In A Wood Tub?
One final story about Diogenes that comes from his later years when he lived in Corinth.
Diogenes’ reputation had spread outside of Athens and across the empire. The famous Emperor Alexander the Great had heard about Diogenes and was curious to meet him. As one version of the story goes, Alexander travelled great length to meet the old philosopher where he lived in humble circumstances.
When Alexander arrived, he found Diogenes basking in the sun. Introducing himself, Alexander said: “I am Alexander, the great king.” Alexander offered to grant Diogenes anything he wished and that he just had to name it. Diogenes replied simply, “Yes, there is one thing. Move a little to the left and stand out of my sunlight. You are blocking it.”
Alexander, taken back, paused for a moment. One of his guards raised his weapon to kill Diogenes but was quickly stopped by Alexander who was delighted at Diogenes’ indifference to the emperor’s position and power. Before Alexander left, he said, “if I had not been Alexander, I would have liked to be Diogenes.” Diogenes replied, “if I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”
I hope your kids were able to reflect a little bit about what the role possessions play in their life and effect their happiness. And if they still feel too attached to their things, let them know that could always try living a Diogenes inspired life in cardboard box on the side of the house (although this can backfire because my kids thought it sounded fun). But after all this, if you can finally throw away those Happy Meal toys, consider it a win.