In my entry last week, “Material Saturation” I wrote that we are, as a society, at a point where more material prosperity adds virtually nothing to our happiness and satisfaction. Recently I was involved in a panel discussion about southern Africa where the participants talked about how many of the ideals and values that inspired the quest for change have now given way to raw materialism — the desire for good sun glasses or a second car. I saw the same thing happen in eastern Europe, as the post-communism era saw idealistic efforts to think about how to reform society give way to consumerism and efforts to have more stuff. In teaching about world politics it never ceases to amaze me what greed drives people to do: kidnap girls to use as sex slaves, kill others in order to make money or eliminate competition, devote ones life to the acquisition of material possessions, oblivious to the fact that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t take it with you.’
Meanwhile, despite our material comfort and prosperity, we yearn for more. Rousseau noted this back in the mid 18th century — rather than being satisfied when natural demands are met, we create artificial demands that can never be fully realized. We are not satisfied with a great meal after the hunt, celebrating with family and friends, we want gourmet food, with the best chefs and finest wines. We aren’t happy with shelter from the elements, we want a large house with all the conveniences imaginable. What at one point is a luxury, like a VCR or a microwave, soon becomes perceived as a necessity. And we get locked into a spiral of needing more and better stuff, and then measuring ourselves by comparing ourselves to others in a material sense — does he make more than me, does she look better than I do, why do I drive this beat up old car while he drives a Lexus, etc.
Even when others are not judging us, we get caught up in thinking that others will be looking at our material conditions, and drawing conclusions on our value as a person. People secretly want others to fail in order to reinforce ones’ own sense of self worth, and seek diversion and distraction, anything avoid having to reflect on whether or not ones’ life has enduring value. People throw themselves into following sports, becoming political junkies, or other escapes. All this feeds into a kind of material neurosis, incurable due to material saturation.
I think the way to counter that is to recognize that material saturation is, at least in the case of we in the industrialized West, usually accompanied by a spiritual dehydration. For many, even the idea of something spiritual is suspect — that’s the stuff of religion, superstition, new age silliness, or distraction from the material realty of life — the opiate of the people, as it were. Yet that view of spirit is very limiting, and reflects an enlightenment era error — namely to see understanding reality as a competition between religion/superstition and reason. By fighting religious authority, the believers in reason bracketed out spiritual concerns (though philosophers like Rousseau and the later romantics brought them back in) and dismissed them. This made it easier to embrace the material, it’s objective, and can be measured and quantified.
Yet people yearn and are dissatisfied. Life becomes a treadmill…pay the bills, clean the house, take the kids places, and then shop for a brief respite from the every day routine, a rush of adrenaline as some new items are added to ones’ collection. Soon that becomes old, and the routine goes on, eating away at peoples’ enjoyment of and experience of life. How do we respond to this spiritual dehydration?
For people like me, it’s not to embrace an organized religion or new age mysticism. It’s also not simply to go out and do things with friends; a rich party life can also be very dissatisfying. At base, I think, it has to be seeing oneself as a spiritual being in the world. And I’ll define spiritual in a way that may be odd: spirit reflects the creative force within us, the part of us that wants to explore, learn, create, and experience. It isn’t disconnected from the world because we are in the world. But it’s mastery of the “material”, it’s seeing ourselves as our own rulers, autonomous and creative, taking each moment and doing something with it. Taking responsibility for life, and not wanting the mundane, not wanting to be molded by society. Most importantly, we need to be able to take any moment or situation and do something with it, without needing to measure it’s material worth or compare to others. This doesn’t address the metaphysical questions about spirit or meaning, but rather a pragmatic “how does spirit manifest itself in the world of life” definition. Beyond that, I think such creative energy requires us to recognize the essential connection we have with each other, the human need for that connection, and its importance in sparking creative drive and giving it purpose.