A blog about our shared experience…

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?

7 responses

  1. Thought-provoking post, my friend. I’ll be chewing on your questions for a while.

    March 28, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  2. Lee

    I think you’ll enjoy these:

    http://fertilefield.dev.usbnc.org/0902/huening.html

    http://video.pbs.org/video/1383845135/
    (especially 16:25 to 19:30 and 22:20 to 25:07 and 43:00 to 46:20;
    plus 33:50 to 38:05 and 27:30 to 30:20 relates to your “Friday” controversy too)

    http://www.amazon.com/Political-Mind-Understand-21st-Century-18th-Century/dp/0670019275

    March 29, 2011 at 5:30 am

  3. sabrina

    The question really I think to start out with is what exactly is selfishness and selflessness. Many define that in different ways, so when you use that as a foundation of your thoughts, what is YOUR definition? :O)

    To start out, you spoke about the materialistic nature of humans… is it really humans, or is it in general more the american culture that is expanding to other cultures? That the “free” lifestyle is craved by others? I do agree materialism is a growing problem in todays society. People are willing to put themselves into thousands and sometimes millions of dollars to “appear” wealthy and accomplished and are lonely and sad, but oh as long as they “look” happy. It’s an interesting concept. Is it because of selfishness necessarily? I wonder sometimes if there has been a growing trend of feeling the need to impress others in order to feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day. You spoke about measures of our progress, I question that. I am not sure that people necessarily always do it as a measure more than to feel like they are keeping up? Trying to look like they’ve achieved the same status as others who are in the same kind of positions by owning the same things, or doing the same things.

    You ask: “Investigating reality independently of the messages being thrust upon them?” I think that greatly depends on the person. For me for instance, I am fully aware of the psychological impact of advertisement, and such… and due to that I am also aware of the impact it has on me. I also am very stubborn and tend to want to things against the grain just to be different, but I’m also not a follower and I question EVERYTHING !! But for some, they have very different personalities, the great thing about being human, and tend to be followers, not questioning anything in life.

    To address your next question “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.”
    no I don’t think so. I think it’s the thinking behind trying to create a culture that believes items are only as good as they are new, and not raising people to only buy the things they truly need and if it works why replace it. America is a culture that is more and more growing to believe that outdated technology, for instance, is useless technology rather than realizing it is still capable of most functions necessary for use. Honestly, most people don’t care about the unjust workers. Many seem to care about having the newest of the new and being one of the first to get it.

    Your next question “How do we raise our awareness and minimize our contribution to this exploitation? ”

    Be different. Be an example of how not to be. I think many of my friends have followed suit when they realize they don’t have to impress me with material things, and then share with me they don’t pay full price on most of their material possessions because they purchase them once the newest products come out, or at non mainstream stores that most are embarrassed to say they shop at. It’s about being honest and sharing that you are on a budget and simply can’t purchase everything because you don’t have that luxary, and that you don’t have to have the newest Ipad because the 1 works well enough for what you need. It’s changing the way you think and others can see and begin to analyze their lives. Consumers have to have different demands before advertisers will change their way of selling. I think starting young, and being that example to your child and children around you, making them aware of the tactics used to try to sucker them into this culture is vital. This kind of thinking already starts with children as young as 2 years. Something like this would take generations of change.

    “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”

    Yes I agree, and that independance puts you above many. That kind of thinking is what I am trying early on to teach my son. Day by day I try to focus on question and thinking things through more thouroughly before I make my decisions. This awareness, I feel, puts me above many these days.

    :O)

    April 1, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    • Very stimulating response, Sabrina!

      So you began with asking about my definition of selflessness or selfishness…
      As it sounds in my mind, these definitions have everything to do with the willingness(or lack thereof) to sacrifice something lesser for something larger…something important for something more important.

      You asked,
      “…the materialistic nature of humans… is it really humans, or is it in general more the american culture that is expanding to other cultures?”

      I must admit that my experiences are limited to the U.S., the Caribbean and some parts of Europe. I do have close friends in other parts of the world of whom I ask comparative questions about their experience from time to time, and I’ve not heard much that makes me feel that this experience is limited to the people of any one nation’s value system. I would also be very hesitant in general to narrow the scope to one nation…especially one that can be an easy target. I will affirm that I think the model in question is one that is used to describe human nature, and that it is worthy of reflection as to whether it is adequate or appropriate to explain our motivations regarding our interaction with material items.

      “You spoke about measures of our progress, I question that. I am not sure that people necessarily always do it as a measure more than to feel like they are keeping up?”

      Trying to “keep up” still feels like a comparative analysis to me. One that has a standard by which a person might measure themselves against (their neighbors, their co-workers, celebrities, etc…). What makes it different to you?

      I liked the example you gave regarding the hunting for used items rather than “new”, and I wonder a whole lot about the numbers regarding the worldwide level of consumption of resources to keep bringing forth “new” and “fresh” products and services. I think of “Wall-E” or “Astro Boy“…

      My hope is that more people walk alongside each other as we strive to figure out how to collaborate justly and effectively to heal from the unhealthy behaviors that we’ve internalized.

      April 2, 2011 at 1:18 pm

  4. A note:
    Though most of this post focused on material means, how we interact with them and the challenges associated with that, I do want to underscore that I in no way feel that wealth and its benefits are negative in and of themselves. Rather, I wish to explore the effect of how we approach and value such things as we move forward in our exploration of the external and internal forces at play in this human experience.

    April 3, 2011 at 8:21 pm

  5. Tim W

    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?

    This is so difficult because we can’t totally divorce ourselves from the negative value systems that effect us, including materialism. I think we have to make calculated choices to be involved with people and processes around us, where we see hope and potential for change–not just short term change, but enduring change.

    April 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    • Any concrete examples on how one might begin that exploration of interacting more meaningfully with those around them?

      January 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm

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