You and I live in a consumer culture, that is our social lives are organized around the buying and selling of products and services. Our economic stability depends on us constantly buying more things. We are encouraged to do that day by day through the iconography of our culture, that is images of desire and longing. Brilliantly, marketers recreate ordinary products such as a food blender into objects of desire, inspiring in us a longing to have what the product branding imbues of its essence. It’s a kind of sexual dance, for sex and its corollary, fear, are the drivers of the imagination tapped into by the marketers’ creative minds, as they tap into our internal wishes.
We can deride this consumer culture but it’s all we have unless we go off and live on our own on the fringes. I don’t think being frugal, not buying things or not often going to restaurants or not viewing entertainment is enough to take us out of the culture. If we live in this culture, no matter how frugally, just walking down the street with cars passing us by, on our way to the grocery store needing to get bread and cheese, inescapably, we are subject to the rituals and values of consumer culture. In various degrees of intensity, we all believe things need to be better today than yesterday; we expect it. Our home needs to increase in value, not decrease. Our jobs depend on converting resource into product and service, product and service into sales. And it can’t stop. Well it can’t slow down. Apple corporation in one quarterly period made huge profits but their stock price fell. Why? Because Apple was expected to make an even higher profit than it did, so the investors lost confidence. It is a kind of madness, but it is the engine ensuring our society’s stability.
Our social gossip is built around things so beautiful, or things so useful, so convenient, or concerns a great price. We become experts at what looks good on us, always on the hunt for a bit of flare in adornment, a bit of sassy attitude, a piercing, a tattoo, to look so good on us, beauty and desire as things we acquire, perfumes we apply, things we buy. Art, entertainment, music is what we consume, not make. We buy it. Our communal life is built around purchasing things. It’s how we spend our time, what we plan for and how we establish social hierarchy, in other words, what we admire most of all the things we have or wish to have.
Every aspect of life becomes a purchase. We don’t build our life around pushing back the kitchen table after a long day and dancing an Irish jig, as they used to. We don’t build our discourse around the birth of a calf, don’t socialize at a quilting bee turning scrap fabric into a blanket, don’t walk out into our field and see how the hay grain is growing or look up and see how the sky is. We don’t have rituals celebrating the sun, welcoming the rain, paying respect to the darkness. We don’t take our time walking out into the woods with cold hands to fix a fence, along the way back stand in admiration at the white snow hanging heavy on the tree limbs a blanket of snow. Trees and snow and dance and things are not packaged goods, commodities. They don’t cost money. We value what costs money. We spoil ourselves with watching a movie or going out to dinner or booking a weekend at a resort with water slides. We don’t spoil ourself with putting our arms around a tree, lying on the grass all afternoon laughing at the play of the birds and squirrels. We don’t get really excited about watching the sun come up, not as excited as we’d be about going to a sold-out concert. There were other peoples and societies who did welcome the sun, get excited about a new moon festival. For us, we look to packaging, purchasing our pleasure; the packaging tells us what has value. It’s a peculiarity of our society that we put a dollar value on lumber but not on trees.
This competitive marketplace that is our home, the definition of our lives, is a beneficent god really, that takes care of us, provides for us. We the customers feel loved and and in the life-long accumulation of our goods, placed neatly in drawers, organized in storage units, stuffed into closets, boxed in our basements and hidden away in our crawl spaces, define the measure our life. Managing things absorbs our attention and time. How much we have represents our achievement.
A sojourn out into the natural world is a buying spree for the most waterproof, windproof, damage proof jacket and boots and gloves we can find, and the most incredible ski bindings that we have to have because well, they are the most incredible ski bindings to be had, we know, because that’s what we are told, and others tell us in their excited reviews, and our whole excitement for that venture to nature has built around those products along with the packaged granola with blueberries…and when we do invest in such products, we do stay warm and dry and safe. It might be strange to us to think otherwise. We value the products that allow us to be in nature in the same way we are in our living rooms. Safe and comfortable. It wouldn’t even occur to us to value getting wet, or feeling cold, or fighting the wind. Over many millennia facing the cold and the hunger and the wet and the fear, and surviving them, was the defining value, yes, the rich reward of living a full life.
Starbucks spent hundreds of thousands of dollars designing and installing the lighting for its pastries. We walk into Starbucks and fall in love with the ‘oh, some fancy name’ muffin. We are convinced with how beautiful it is wrapped in its own delicate paper sleeve, how delectable it will be, how warm and inviting it is, how it is calling us, promising how good we will feel by having it. The glass-fronted cabinet is full of these delectable wonders, so many different choices, each one beautifully presented, perfectly formed, each in its own space, ideally placed, not crowded in, but separate, special, exclusive; we have to have one of them. The marketers’ trick of the mind here is they know standing and looking at these exquisite delectables, our desire in our heart is mirrored, our desire to be ourselves special, and the conceit of marketing realizes itself: we buy the special muffin and feel ourselves special. All unconsciously, of course. Good marketing is always subliminal. The muffins must be good, we believe with all our heart – see how good they look. A smiling clerk raising up our little bag of muffin intones, ‘Thank you. Come again’ but should be saying ‘Well done. You are such a unique and special person.’ And don’t we just glow!
What is that pastry? It’s not something we made. Quite likely we don’t even know how it’s made. But our life is better for it. It brightens our day, gives us value; we feel better for it. We feel we’re doing something good as we pay for it. When we step outside of Starbucks into the mall though, and open the bag, the pastry looks different. Doesn’t look quite as good under the mall lighting. Now, we might not even notice. We might eat it as we’re walking along navigating other people, comparing ourselves to them, or perhaps eat it while looking in another store window, as we notice some other desire, not even tasting the muffin as we eat it. It’s our culture of consumerism engrained into us, to find a short term value in a stimulation, a drug really, the glint and glitz and bling that disappears in the light of day much like the expensively ‘lit’ pastries in StarBucks, designed to glow in the light of the cabinet, that out of that light, taken in a bag to your light, become ordinary, not as desirable. If we thought about it, about what we love, we should be buying the lighting, not the pastry.
Would you allow me another perspective than consumerism, other than foregoing society all together? First consumerism as written above is not about meeting our needs, which makes sense that products serve us, are instrumental in living out our lives. Consumerism as written above different; it’s about using things for our dreams and imagining and longing and hoping. The we speak of dreams and imaginings and longings and desires the talk is about the gods we choose to follow, the well-spring of a life lived well, purposefully, meaningfully. This is the mantra given me over the course of my life, and is about the gods we choose to follow. What is the test for a beneficent god to live by. I feel the criterion is to ask if we feel well, alive to life, awakened to this life we have, grateful for the course of our life. Can we say about the gods we follow? Is that what our god gives us, in other words what we give ourselves over to, does our living life fulfill us, enliven our spirits? I attended a presentation on resilience to a room of doctors, wealthy patrons, hospital staff and the general public. The lecturer began with a series of questions. One question asked how many woke up and their smartphone was charged up. A sea of hands went up. I was standing the back. The next question asked was how many wake up and feel themselves charged up. Two hands went up. I was shocked. Could it be that all those people weren’t excited to get up, couldn’t wait to get going on their day, educated people, wealthy people, ordinary people? What’s wrong with our dreaming and imagining and longing that we don’t love each day, embrace the day with love? What’s wrong with us to think it’s fine, the way things are and should be, to not feel charged, full of life when we wake?
That’s not to say life isn’t messy, doesn’t need sorting out, isn’t chaotic. Life is messy I believe, not some ideal we champion, we possess. I would suggest living for some ideal state is the false conceit of consumerism, where there is a perfect way to live life, a perfect life to have, embodied in the perfect product: that perfect kitchen or car or suit or skirt of dinner. All the things we go like, and like and like and like, over and over. It’s not that a nice kitchen is wrong. The distinction is how we regard the kitchen; the distinction might be described as the difference between having something and believing in something. If product is something we have, we can just as easily not have it. If otherwise, then we rely on product for something more than practical need; we depend on it for giving our life value.
So here’s the mantra for me even me over a lifetime’s journey: the more we seek god, the less chance we have to find god. Let go, the wisdom teaches me, let God be God. For me this is captured in the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas, words attributed to Jesus: ‘if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’
Two things: one, we find our truth within. To discover the one who is our Self, within, as we explore the deepest recesses of our conscious and unconscious Self, and there find the whole of the world, the thing that is our life, our life spirit, oursense of being awakened to life, there within us. And if we listen, tune out all the voices selling us on something, let go and just listen to our own selves, what we hear, what we bring forth will save us.
You were right; there is something special about you, deep in the embryo you emerged from, but you would be mistaken, I feel, if you believed its source of life energy was anything else than this inner self, was something you could buy, could find that Self your desire, in the muffin, to be lured by the sparkle and fall for the messaging of our consumer culture, all those voices pressing us with their wares and false hopes, dreams of being special because of what we own, or the title we have, or the status of our work, or size of anything. Self is found within, in the small voice calling out, in our not knowing anything, giving ourselves over to the mystery, letting go. Let God be God. You be yourself. And the Self you are, that self you have known from your earliest memories, that little Self you once knew, that Self will save you, recognizing the very nature of your own Self that you are one with all things, bound in love to life, to love life, to bring that forth will save you. That will save you, the sages teach. Look there.