TOO MUCH IS NEVER ENOUGH
This way. The thumping bass sucks me into its orbit. But not for long--as my eyes draw me forward, my ears catch a different beat across the way. A song I think I know, I think I like. Search for its source and stride towards it. Stop! Shoes. I've been looking at that pair for a while and they catch my eye like new friends I hardly yet know, but who are already familiar and desirable. Maybe it's time to buy? They're expensive. But if I owned them, along with that music, I'd be content. Moving towards the music again, almost running. Beginning to gasp, the breath hitting the bottom of my throat and going no further. Rows upon rows of glaring CD covers curdle my mind. The shoe-shop's smell of fake desire turns me away and draws me back. Where to focus? Where to stop?
I am not a shop-a-holic. Yet, most of the time, I have a product in mind, wanting to buy: that pair of shoes, that CD just launched. I imagine that if I purchase the golden item, it will change my life. That those difficulties which ache at the back of my mind--how to apologise to my friend for that unhappy incident a week ago, how to cope with a difficult job--will dissolve. `The job would be a whole lot easier if I had that music to listen to/those shoes to wear', etc. For a few days after purchase, perhaps things do appear easier. That is until the golden item has been superseded by the thought of a different product--this time, one which will undoubtedly make me happy... Like shopping malls designed to lure us in and prevent easy exit, our minds trap us into a cycle of desiring, buying, and desiring again.
The 1990s kick-started a new culture in the Western world--a culture in which lavish consumption is encouraged as the way to self-fulfilment. With material goods such as cars and computers obsolete almost as soon as they are sold, we experience a rapid turnover of objects, and an equally rapid turnover of our desires. We are taught to live in order to maximise our own, immediate pleasure: `Too much is never enough', pronounces a huge neon sign above New York City, and `Shop Shop Shop!'. Material wealth--with its ability to satisfy instantaneously, if temporarily--has become the Number One priority. Continual out-moding causes us to feel obsolete as people, unless we continually redefine ourselves by getting and spending. Gradually we are learning to treat everything, including ourselves and others, as disposable, replaceable; divorce in Britain today affects one in three marriages.1
In the popular new computer game, The Sims, in which players recreate their own lives in a virtual suburbia, the Sims are `made happy by buying new items... such as a pool table or microwave'.2 And the recent box-office hit, American Beauty, depicts a couple so obsessed with items that they are no longer living; so driven to achieve materially, in the belief that this is the way to satisfaction, that they lose each other. A four-thousand dollar Italian silk sofa is still, after all, made for sitting on! `The American [read Western] dream causes a lot of problems... It's not about spirituality, your soul, it's about how much money you make and how great you look doing it' (Wes Bentley, actor). Insecure in our relationships and in defining ourselves, we have developed an `insane attachment to things' in our search for stability and contentment.3
Ramphay is a Laotian refugee, now settled in Australia with her husband and sons. She describes feeling bombarded by the push for material wealth in Sydney. `The minute I wake up, the TV is full of commercials telling us to buy and buy... The message each day is to get and to grab as much as you can.' The family runs its own business, lives in a desirable home with a swimming pool, owns a car, wears good clothes... They have everything material within their reach, and yet Ramphay is plagued by an emptiness, a void.
It is natural to want to fill a void. And it is when we feel empty that this culture of consumption erodes our consciousness, whispering to us the items we desire to overcome it. (Ramphay owns numerous black cardigans as a result!) Ironically, we seek fulfilment in the one way which ensures ultimate dissatisfaction. By putting our hope in constantly obsolete material items, we cannot help but be disappointed and find ourselves wanting more. This cycle of trying for contentment and finding none can lead to an addiction difficult to overcome, since our deepest cravings can never be satisfied in the material world.4 Of course we need `things' - they provide physical comfort and even happiness! A materially comfortable life is certainly not something to be opposed or taken for granted. But these things fulfil temporary needs and it is when we place too much importance on material possessions that we face emptiness, or what some call spiritual poverty.
Newspaper report: a billionaire, apparently owning all that she could want, commits suicide. I experience a wave of reality, when I realise for a frightening instant that I will never find happiness in the material world. The fear comes from the sense of hopelessness that these moments bring, for if what I find myself striving for is worthless, what is the point of this life? But as I become more aware of where else I can seek fulfilment, these moments overcome me less frequently and with less intensity.
It is possible, though increasingly difficult, to remove ourselves from the consumer environment. My favourite place is the mountains (those where, so far, there are no `packaged' walks!). Here I can escape, for a time, the constant `need' for material products. With no possibility of purchasing anything, I am left to appreciate the unbought beauty of the landscape and enjoy the company of the people around me; all consumer pressure is abolished. Atop a mountain, there is nothing to hide behind or grab to redefine myself. Suddenly I am free to face myself and others, and our situations, as we are. This is true freedom, unlike the much-vaunted `freedom' to spend. This space is not the deceptive spaciousness of a shopping mall, which tears my attention from side to side and steals my breath away through fear of discovering an empty hole somewhere deep inside. In this space, the wind blows unabated through my emptiness and the void inside is gone, for a time.
But for urbanites like me, the mountains are for holidays; all the time I know I must return to the complex consumer world. Rather than simply rejecting consumption, I must learn to shake its grip by recognising its perpetual emptiness and by choosing to focus my attention--and to find fulfilment--elsewhere. Subcomandante Marcos (an insurgent fighting for liberation from the Mexican state) speaks of the vital need for a new space, an alternative to `the false promises used everywhere to justify and idealise the delinquent and insatiable need to sell'.5 While this consumer culture continues, the only way we will find such a space is to deliberately build it into our own lives.
Ramphay's gnawing emptiness forced her to question why she lived and where she was heading. She gained no satisfaction--only pressure and frustration--from the material world, and sought a new space. She found it amongst a group of people in her own community, constructing a local multi-purpose hall. For her family, involvement in the project has been `the most refreshing thing ever'. After a week of struggling through the consumer world, Ramphay is always uplifted by the work (beginning with `little things like fixing the taps'), by the lack of material competition and by the focus it gives to her life. By working and spending time together, a genuine concern for each other has developed amongst the group which Ramphay finds difficult to put into words. This `thing' cannot be described in material terms--given a colour or size or price. But it is the thing which, by its very immaterial nature, fills Ramphay's emptiness and gives meaning to her life. By valuing ourselves and others for what we are, we begin to recognise the value of life for what it is, instead of valuing it only for what it might provide materially.
Nicci Long, Australia
1The Independent on Sunday, 23-1-00, p.4
2Adam Sherwin, `Playing the game of your life', The Times, 12-2-00, p.11
3Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
4Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1992
5The Guardian, 20-11-99, p. 2 (Saturday Review)
Padlocks in South Africa
Standing at the counter (I work part-time in a bookshop), I was thinking about this animal called materialism. It started out as an academic exercise until I was reminded of my own list of `must haves' written somewhere in my diary. The urgent need to own more and more.
With ownership comes the fear of loss of ownership. So we build higher walls, buy bigger locks. There's a whole industry built on our fear of loss of possessions. In this process of hoarding and protection we start to lose track of both our humanity and the sense of community which strengthens us in times of need. Gone are the days of popping over to the neighbours' for a cup of tea or to borrow some sugar. You now have to bypass intercoms, automatic gates, dogs trained to kill and a padlocked door. As a consequence we no longer take the time to listen to other people's stories and get to know them.
The increasingly rapid breakdown of society--where will it leave us? Who will teach the next generation of our culture, traditions and sharing? These are integral to passing on morals and values. We are rushing at breakneck speed into the future but when did we last stop to ask where we are going?
Michelle Horn, South Africa