Mystery Keys, and Why We Keep Them


Why do people keep mystery keys, and why do I feel the need to answer that question? Why am I conflicted about it? This, and much more, on today’s installment of “But What Do I Know?”

Let me start by defining “mystery keys”. You know those keys you have – perhaps on your keyring, or perhaps hanging on a hook in your garage, or perhaps sitting in that weird kitchen drawer that holds all the stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else in the house – that you no longer remember where they came from, or what they go to? Yeah, everybody has those. Those are mystery keys. Why do we hang onto those? This is the question I posed in the midst of a facebook post asking my friends to contribute their mystery keys to me so I could make a mosaic out of them.

I got very few responses, and even those I got expressed trepidation at letting go of these keys. I joked that we all imagine a future in which we’re standing at a locked door, trying every key on our keyring, and finally, one of the mystery keys works! Now, in retrospect, I don’t think that’s a joke. I think that, to some degree, we subconsciously hold onto a “just in case” argument. It’s the same thought process that causes preppers to prep and hoarders to hoard, but without the eventual culmination of those habits into an obstacle to everyday life. Let me interject and say that I had a prepper phase that lasted about the entirety of my 20s, and for those outside the know, the difference between preppers and hoarders is one of organization. Please see figure 1.0.

figure 1.0

Hoarders, for example, eventually run out of usable space, or start living in and on their hoards. Preppers also might run out of space, but more likely, simply run out of money to continue indulging such an expensive hobby, and then do a cost benefit analysis of the time, money, and effort spent on the prepping weighed against the benefits of the lifestyle in a day-to-day, non-apocalyptic context. This is the exact series of thoughts that led to my own transition from prepper to struggling-yet-still-aspiring-quasi-minimalist.

The thing that keeps the collecting of keys from posing this same detriment to everyday life is simple: keys are tiny. They take up almost no room, they cost almost nothing, and they’re very easy to keep out of sight and out of mind. Also, the accumulation of keys is usually so gradual that by the time you get a new one, you’ve acclimated to your existing key collection and learned to co-exist with it. Then, one day, you’re literally standing at that door, trying each and every one of the keys that you never took the time to label or color-code, and you’re like, “Damn… why do I have twenty keys? What do these even go to?” Unfortunately, there’s usually no way to answer that question by then, so you’re faced with a choice: do you lighten your key load and risk tossing a key that might open a door you’ll someday find yourself standing at, or do you just continue to live with your collection of mystery keys? The cost of living with the keys is very low, and you’ve been doing it up to this point, so why change?

Why streamline your keyring unless there’s a specific reason to, other than decreasing the amount of time it might take to find the correct key the next time you’re standing at that locked door? Especially when, subconsciously, each of those keys represents the opening of a door, or the unlocking of a lock. They represent access. They represent answers.

Maybe the answer is that every one of those potential answers carries the weight of an unknown question. We carry the answer, ever seeking the question and the satisfaction of putting the two together, and what possibilities might lie on the other side. We want to feel prepared for that situation, the same as the prepper and hoarder who stockpile answers for questions that they may never be asked – problems that the universe may never present. What is the value vs the cost of being prepared?

Here’s where the comparisons diverge. Stockpiling food, fuel, and guns is expensive, requires enormous time and effort, and presents a legitimate obstacle to a societally “normal” lifestyle. That said, the potential payoff, should those things be required, is arguably very high. Stockpiling keys is very low-cost, in time, effort, space, and mental energy, but we always imagine a big payoff. Truth be told, if I really NEED to open that locked door, I can probably kick it in, find another way around it, pick the lock, call a locksmith, or get a new key made. Once we try to rationalize it, it becomes clear that we keep keys as a kind of subconscious security blanket, and maybe facing the fear of letting go of that blanket is far more important for our growth than the mere physical streamlining of a keyring.

So, why did I care that much about stockpiling keys, and why did I feel the need to write that weird blog post about it? Well, maybe for the realization that mystery keys represent a security blanket of potential answers and access, and that to let go of them and face my fears of imaginary unpreparedness is a step forward in my own personal growth. Maybe I can take that lesson and apply it to other figurative security blankets I’ve been hanging onto against rational reason, and maybe letting those go would also be a step forward. Maybe it’s easier to write about keys than some of those other things that are more deeply rooted.

Maybe I want to make a mosaic of keys because, subconsciously, I want to SEE all those potential answers laid out in front of me, and yet simultaneously know that I can no longer retrieve or use ANY of them, and that the entire concept of being prepared is unrealistic – that preparedness is more a mindset than a realistic state of being. Maybe there’s a balance that I’m still struggling to find.

Maybe both the key mosaic and this entire blog post are just me attempting to turn my own insecurities into some kind of productive, cathartic, authentic artwork. In both cases, it feels good, so I guess it’s working.


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