Assumption to Reassess: Are We the Sum of Our Materials?
“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet…”
— Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)
It appears to me that there are models of human nature that have been implemented into policies that we live under that appear to bring us to less-than-favorable results. One of these is the materialistic model of human nature that tells us that consumption and pursuit of sensual pleasure is the path to human happiness. Many reading may feel the compulsion to deny a buy-in to that model, but it remains a powerful standard by which many of us measure our own progress, whether it be physical beauty, fashion, status, sexual fulfillment or the many other things that we process in the dark recesses of our minds.
This excerpt from a book called “One Common Faith” comes to mind:
“Consumer culture, today’s inheritor by default of materialism’s gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions. Its most obvious casualty has been language. Tendencies once universally castigated as moral failings mutate into necessities of social progress. Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights. Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed.”
The above passage is packed with assertions that many challenge in light of personal opinion, societal norms, and even currently-held academic positions, but it rings true to me nonetheless.
How, then, did this consumer culture develop? Great thinkers have emerged through the ages, the ideas of whom have survived, persisted and provided a great deal of insight into our reality. This insight builds with new thinkers, and the organic process of learning continues. These models can be helpful when used for predictive purposes, but can become quite troublesome when used for prescriptive purposes. At any point in this evolutionary, organic growth in understanding of reality, one could take any one of these ideas and form a model for systems that explain the way we operate as human beings. Such a model can also become policy that governs the way we operate as human beings.
Now, the questions I have are these: What if the premise of the model that turns into policy is faulty? What are the repercussions of a model that turns into policy that assumes something about the constituents it serves that isn’t entirely accurate? What is the role of the individual in investigating reality independently of the messages being thrust upon them?
Those questions resulted in my questioning many of our policies that assume that human beings are selfish and are competing for limited resources. I don’t agree with that assumption, because it isn’t consistent with my experience with human beings. So many times, I’ve been treated with kindness and generosity from others that had nothing to gain from contributing such generosity. They received no tangible benefit from it, and no expectations were set for such an act to be reciprocated. As a father and a husband, I have made and am willing to make so many sacrifices that aren’t self-serving in my view, and are investments into something greater than my personal benefit or enjoyment. I’ll get more into the “self-interested” model of human nature in a future post.
The effect of these models applied prescriptively becomes apparent in the way that individuals are encouraged through media messages to blindly pursue material wealth both as a means to achieve happiness and as an end in and of itself. This then sets into motion an educational approach that places value on the amount of money made from a particular career path, rather than on the particular career path one feels called to take. This approach dissuades some from striving to improve the conditions that they would like to impact and retards the motives of the individual, who is then guided towards the material end rather than the inspired path.
I have to ask myself regularly: What material items define my success to my peers? What salary is praiseworthy or embarrassing to disclose? What car is representative of my worth as a man to those who see myself and my family riding in it? What judgments will be made about how I dress when going to the store, a restaurant or a worship gathering? What is it attributed to when I make a change in any of these areas? I find that it takes a great deal of detachment to combat these forces in making even some of the most basic and practical decisions.
The dark and twisty elements that we MUST consider as we consume incessantly, is the reality that the overwhelming majority of material things are the result of the exploitation of people who work to manufacture these things with an unjust compensation in relation to the profit gained from the items in question. How do we raise our awareness and minimize our contribution to this exploitation?
I’ll get into some of that more in future posts, but I’ll close with a few questions that I feel explore what we really are about:
What is the true nature of the individual? What is the purpose of human existence? What are the deepest sources of human motivation and capacity? What conscious decisions must we make about our actions and choices if we decide that we don’t wish to adhere to the value placed on material things? What conversations can we have with our peers about developing a safe space to explore and act upon a collective understanding of these ideas?