Tag Archives: materialism

Consumerism – the third brick in the wall

By Contributor Daryl Gefken

This is the third in a three-part series.

Daryl Geffken

C.S. Lewis once quipped, “If you want to embarrass a Christian, ask them about their prayer life.”  That got me thinking, “If you want to embarrass an American, make them move.”  Perhaps I can explain by way of making fun of myself.

My family moved last summer.  And I finally came in touch with my own materialism.  It was when one car — an entire car — was filled with Tupperware containers holding all of my Star Wars Lego sets.  Am I given to hyperbole?  Often.  But not here.  Worse yet, these were Lego sets that I had built, photographed, and then put into separate Ziploc bags (or series of bags for the larger sets), and hidden away with their sequenced instruction booklets.  Toys not to be played with.

In my experience, I have come to believe an attitude of entitlement and consumerism is pervasive in American society where a merit-based system of thinking has justified accumulation.  This seems to pit liberty against social responsibility.  It says, “I can do what I please with that which is mine,” rather than recognizing that we were given opportunity by what Bono has labeled a “blessing of latitude.”

(The following may get a little academic, but read on.)

The scope of consumerism is substantial.  It’s the 21st century worldview that places the individual as one of its highest values and emphasizes the moral right of individual choice. By emphasizing the self above all else, a consumerist-ethic fosters the notion — we are what we buy. In fact, in the U.S., we spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe, according to Annie Leonard.  This describes a perpetual downward spiral that leads to over-consumption, or greed.  Author David Loy wrote, “Greed is based on a delusion: the delusion that happiness is to be found this way.  Trying to find fulfillment through profit, or by making consumption the meaning of one’s life amounts to idolatry.”  It follows that this moral right must be protected.  And we do protect it.  The United States, by foreign policy, business practice and military might continues to expand its values and enforce its sovereign right in the world.

Benjamin Barber took consumerism even further by arguing that a consumer-based economy has produced adult infants, “The child wants what it wants when it wants it, without consideration of the needs of others, and man-child does not outgrow this pattern.”  In such an economy, imaginary needs are created for those who have wealth, while the overwhelmingly true needs of those in poorer countries are marginalized because they are irrelevant as consumers.  It is so pervasive that it dominates almost all areas of society.  Infantilism has distorted need.  In my work with students I have heard many speak of the need for the latest jeans or new cell phone to change their look every two weeks.  I rarely have heard these students question where their next meal is coming from.  Barber maintained, “Not everything needs to earn a profit, not everyone needs to be a shopper—not all the time.”

Here’s an example that illustrates how compartmentalized Americans have become. In the late 90’s, Hillary Rodham Clinton protested against, “a consumer-driven culture that promotes values that undermine democracy” and berated, “materialism that undermines our spiritual centers.” Author Gregg Easterbrook writes, “Shortly thereafter, she bought a $1.7 million home and signed an $8 million book contract…. Clinton demonstrates what so many of us are inclined to do…We’re bent on saving everyone else from the horrors of consumption while taking care to make ourselves rich and comfy.”

Mark Gerzon made the assertion that, “Becoming a global citizen is not primarily a question of knowledge, or of feelings.  It is a question of values.  Becoming a global citizen requires that we ask ourselves: Are the values that we live by ‘good for the world?’”  He suggested five foundational values that could help create opportunities to conquer disparity in the world: integrity, learning, dialogue, bridging and synergy.

Here are two quotes to consider. “It is not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us rich,” by Henry Ward Beecher. And, “The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good,” by Ann Landers.

As I have shared these thoughts in the past, some people have not only felt uncomfortable  (not a bad thing, I think), but also become quite angry or accusatory towards me.  I can understand this position in some ways.  If you are feeling a little edgy at this moment, ready to call me a liberal commie or something like that, listen: This is not social justice, I understand this to be the command of Christ.  If you want to call me names, feel free. But along with that, please show me where my understanding of Jesus’ expectation is wrong.

The Lego Syndrome

By Contributor Daryl Geffken

This is the second in a three-part series. Read the first entry here.

Daryl Geffken

Today I’m continuing a “three-piece” (pun intended) series on how playing with Legos has helped me deconstruct materialism (pun also intended).

I love playing with Legos. I could construct sets for hours—and have.  It is a unique joy for me to construct things, to see how they can be sturdy and aesthetic at the same time.  Now here’s the deal, I get all jazzed when I get a new set, and I love sitting down and putting them together and getting all the pieces together and whatnot.  And then, as soon as I’m done, it seems like I just look at the model for about two minutes, and almost instantaneously want a new set. I’m not satisfied with what has been created. Once the anticipation of having something accomplished is complete I’m anxious to move on to something else.  It doesn’t fully satisfy.

The analogy is fairly clear, many of the things in life we want are incredibly appealing and we anticipate that they will fulfill our desires and help make us more complete.  It is often only after achieving or acquiring these things that we realize it was just smoke and mirrors and the desire still remains, it has simply switched focus to something new we don’t possess. If our value rests in this endless pursuit, well, we’re doomed.

I have said before I believe each person in the history of the world longs for three things — to be known, to be loved, and to be significant.  We have this desire in us. And we seek to have it fulfilled in all sorts of ways.  Over the years I’ve collected lots of stuff; more education, more toys (Apple products and technological sundries seem to be the option du jour), more popularity (have you read my blog, lately?) and, well, you get the point.  To continually fulfill our desire for significance, we acquire.

And then we trash.  A lot.  Only 1 percent of all materials used in the production, distribution and consumption of our market economy is still in use after six months; 99 percent is trashed. If the world’s population were to live as the average American does, it would require three planets to sustain such a lifestyle (facts taken from Leonard, 2005).

In her poignant documentary film, “The Story of Stuff,” Annie Leonard (2005) claimed, “We have become a nation of consumers. Our primary identity has become that of consumer, not mothers, teachers, farmers, but consumers. The primary way that our value is measured and demonstrated is by how much we contribute to this arrow, how much we consume.”

Through concepts such as planned obsolescence (making things that break down quickly so we must buy more) and perceived obsolescence (convincing us that the model we have is outdated and depreciates our value, so we must buy more), we have been trained to want more, convinced to think we need more.

You are complicit in this; as am I.  The responsibility is ours.  This is a highly complex issue, but I would like to encourage you to do a few things.  Limit your consumption. Start incrementally, start a consumption log, and after a month determine what you can cut out of your life.  Second, watch “Story of Stuff” (it’s only 20 minutes long and you can watch it right here), so you can be more fully informed. Look for what critics say about it.  Third, spend some time in reflection determining what brings real value to your life.  Fourth, spread the word (maybe even write in the comments below ideas for limiting this system). This may feel like a lot, but I believe it is well worth it.

If you’re going to spend anything in the next week, spend the time to delve deeper into this.

Do we own stuff, or does it own us?

By Contributor Sr. Teresa Jackson

Sr. Teresa Jackson

I have been developing a theory that our stuff multiplies at night when we’re not watching.  OK, so it isn’t a particularly rational theory, but admit it, how often do you look around and say “where did all this stuff come from!?”

This seems to be a universal problem in the developed world.  No one seems to be immune from the plague of ever-expanding piles of possessions.  It is especially scary that even for those of us who live in monasteries stuff has a way of accumulating, multiplying and taking up all the space we allot for it.  Even monks and nuns aren’t immune from the tentacles of stuff.

St. Benedict, the founder of monastic life in the West, lived long before the era of cheap, disposable goods.  But even in the 6th century when he wrote his rule for monks he knew the dangers of accumulation.  Although Benedict is generally very flexible and pragmatic about monastic life he takes a particularly hard line on the subject of possessions (the polite word for “stuff”).  In the Rule of Benedict chapter 33:2-4 he says  “….without an order from the abbot [leader of the monastery], no one may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as his own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus—in short, not a single item, especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills.

Unlike modern people, Benedict wasn’t just worried his monks would run out of room for their stuff, he knew the danger was much deeper and more insidious.  He knew our possessions change how we think.  The more we own the less freedom we have.  Our belongings start to control our lives.  Pretty soon we think we “need” all kinds of things.  Next, our life is oriented toward accumulating things we have convinced ourselves we can’t live without.  We need to work harder, make more money, spend more time shopping for all the belongings we “have to have” or we simply want in order to make us feel better.  Before long we need more space for our possessions, we spend all kinds of time caring for them, maintaining them, sorting through them, cleaning them, getting rid of them, worrying about them.  In other words, pretty soon we don’t own stuff, it owns us.

When our stuff starts to own us, rather than vice versa, we have lost a fundamental sense of freedom.  For Christians and other people of faith there is a fundamental freedom in knowing and experiencing the reality that everything, our very lives, are a gift from God.  Ultimately, as Benedict reminds his monks, we don’t own anything. All we think we own is really a gift that we don’t necessarily, or even particularly, deserve.  If we are able to truly embrace this reality then there is a paradoxical freedom.  If we aren’t entitled to anything, much less a house full of stuff, then we can begin to be grateful.  Instead of complaining, feeling empty, focused on what we want, we can begin to just appreciate the gift of our most basic and fundamental possessions.  Most of us live in houses that are palatial by the world’s standards.  We feast at vast banquets every day.  We have hot, running water on demand.  Automobiles take us wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go.  And those are just the material possessions.

Even those of us who live the contemporary monastic way of life don’t live up to Benedict’s strict standards.  We don’t own a lot (we don’t have enough room to accumulate a lot) but we do have personal possessions.  We also make a commitment to struggle with the siren song of stuff.  In the monastery our temptations may not be much different from those outside the monastery, but by living in community with a common commitment to a simple life centered on God, we can perhaps accumulate less stuff and become less enmeshed in its grip.  Monastic life is a chance to begin to divest ourselves of a sense of entitlement.  We have to take a cold, hard look at what we really need and not just what we want.  It isn’t easy. One person’s “want” is another person’s “need.”  But hopefully our common struggle is a witness that if we begin to disentangle ourselves from the tentacles of our possessions there is a possibility for a life of freedom, gratitude and peace, a reward that seems more than worth the cost of a lot of stuff.  When we begin to really divest ourselves of our sense of entitlement, when we reach a place where we can just give thanks for what we have, then perhaps that is the place where transformation really begins.