Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, I remember the president told Americans to go out and spend money and purchase things. And I thought this to be a curious encouragement. Did he expect our nation to heal through retail therapy? Not dealing with traumatic experiences with intense counseling wouldn’t bode well. Or did it reflect a key insight that the life of the economy is driven by behaviors and emotions (and not rational actors)? We as a nation were shocked by the horrors of what had taken place, and perhaps we momentarily shifted focused from consuming to living mindfully, aware of our relationships and of the implications of our greed on the conditions in the rest of the world.
This is one of the things about hardship and tragedy: it reminds us of what is important. Consumerism, as a form of materialism, is then when we focus on having the latest and greatest version of whatever the market has to offer us, and we become addicted to the distracting act of consuming, rather than mindfully pursuing what is important, engaging in a transaction to address a need, and then getting back to the rest of life. I use the word “addicted” purposefully, since, like with an addiction, there is only ever a temporary satiation, satisfying of one’s craving. There is never enough, and the pursuit to acquire more becomes the focus of life itself. We might consume or stock pile food, always wait to get the next new phone or computer, buy clothes or shoes or bags or kitchen gadgets or books or knitting yarn or collectable box sets, only to have them take up space in our homes. We occasionally look at them and think of how they make us feel, but rarely actually get around to using them for their intended purposes – to fulfill the need to eat, to communicate, to be clothed, to nurture our minds, to create art, to play. Consumerism causes us to burst at the seams (literally and figuratively), creates immense amounts of material waste, and diverts shocking sums of money to feeding the habit of acquisition, money which could be used more purposefully to help you live in line with the values you claim are important.
We are biologically designed to consume. Food is eaten, nutrients extracted, waste excreted. Plants and animals consume and we do too. To consume is not inherently bad. But, when it is taken to an extreme, out of the boundaries of moderation, then it becomes bad for us. Determining one’s limits, to define where the limits of moderation exist, is a spiritual discipline. It is not something that one can usually clearly define for another person, since we all have different levels and types of needs. Often we only become aware of where those limits are upon reflection of having crossed them – that time you ate too much and you cursed yourself a few hours later, when you sat staring at the results of the shopping spree and now have to choose between paying for food or the mortgage. Or sometimes the consequences are much quieter. You have a 1000 music albums downloaded but no cash left to actually see the artist when they come into town. Then, when consuming becomes a habitual activity that serves as a coping mechanism to sooth feelings of low-self worth, perceptions of scarcity, or lack of control, it advances into a spiritual disease.
The thing with extremes, is that there are always two opposite ends. After that binge you swear off ever buying another, eating another, watching another… until the biological need kicks in, and perhaps shows you how deprivation doesn’t solve anything (but makes you miserable). Then, the pendulum swings back and you feel bad and so to sooth, binge again and the cycle repeats. Or, if you’re lucky, you take some time to reflect and learn and can begin to pull back from the edge of the extremes and, reading your reality, learn how to consume in moderation. Sometimes this process is a daily one and sometimes we go through cycles. We attempt the latest fad diet, perhaps even for a month or two. We felt we were consuming too much food and so need to get our act in gear and thus we start eating some weird combination of foods that slowly deprives our bodies of the nutrients it needs. Sure, perhaps we do loose weight, but in the end we find it’s not sustainable. How many diets have you been able to maintain for 2 years? Chances are, it is only those which are actually rooted in moderation and designed to build a healthy body and mind. And chances are, it recognizes that it’s not only about the food, but also helps you account for the sleep, exercise, habitual behaviors, environment, etc that also impact our weight. It’s the same thing with money.
Food is a tool that fuels the body. Money is a tool used to help us obtain what we – individually and collectively – need to first, survive, and then, thrive. But those other components: carrying out a trade or profession in service to others, caring for our families, participating in worship activities both privately and in groups, learning, engaging with art, strengthening relationships – these are the things that lead to prosperity, the good life. But they all require sacrifice in some form. Time, energy, and/or money are needed to make these happen and bring about this life. Consumerism is the antithesis of sacrifice. Sacrifice requires giving up something that is worse in exchange for something better. The pain comes from when we are deeply attached to that thing that is worse for us, since it feeds our more base nature. Consumerism is the incessant feeding of our base nature. The daily, hourly, minute-by-minute even, battle to overcome that base instinct and choose the higher plane is not easy. But it leads to such true happiness and contentment. It requires reading your reality, identifying your non-negotiable needs and deep motivating values. Chances are, it will lead to a much simpler life. You will learn what you need to do, and not do. You make the definite decision, set up your life to give you the best chance of daily winning, put failures into perspective as learning opportunities (and let go of the judgement), and keep moving forward.
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