On CNN last night I saw part of an interview with the famous “Dr. Phil,” who noted that there may be an upside to the economic crisis. “Instead of going to Disney land, a family may throw a ball around in the front yard,” and perhaps people will start re-connecting as families rather than seeking gratification and excitement through shopping or expensive activities.
At one level, that could be taken as incredibly insensitive. People are losing jobs, houses are being foreclosed and the level of anxiety and stress is rising rapidly around the country. For a wealthy media personality to say this might be “good for us” seems thoughtless. Yet I think he’s right, and in fact learning to live in an era of crisis will be key to helping us work towards a sustainable future.
Last summer I compared consumerism to fascism. That was an early theme in my blog, even before the financial meltdown in September. When Obama (who I have supported) planned a major stadium speech for his convention, I found eeiry connections with Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will, and in general found that consumerism had overtaken electoral politics with the selling of the President. I connected with a perceived spiritual dehydration of our culture, directly related to material saturation.
You can read those old posts if you want more substance to the argument, but in essence the point is that we as a culture have become so materialistic that we seek meaning and satisfaction not from each other or our experience of life, but from the stuff we can collect, buy, and use. And, given that material possessions can offer no truly satisfying long term sense of meaning, we’re driven to constantly want to get more stuff, expand our material possessions, go shopping when down, and look for something to make us feel that life is worth it.
The cultural malody is both cause and consequence of the current economic crisis. In a nutshell, here’s the problem. Modernism created a culture where humans no longer had meaning given to them in the form of a pre-existing religion or sense of strong community. Instead we had to form individual identities and make sense of the world without there being a clear answer key. The hope was that reason and rational thought would provide a clear path to liberation and understanding, but as tools to manipulate reality they are themselves unable to provide meaning. Indeed, as noted earlier this week, reason can be turned on itself and destroy any claim about meaning and value built with reason alone. Moreover, reason deals in the observable, material world we can manipulate. This means that idealism, religion, and spiritualism are distrusted at best, or dismissed as irrelevant superstition at worst.
So as individuals and a culture we seek to find meaning in the material. Enter the cunning politician or advertiser. They understand human psychology, and they know that meaning does not come from matter or even reason, but it’s from emotion, and our sense of well being. If you can connect a political program or a object for sale with that kind of psychological sense, it can be sold as providing meaning to the consumer. For awhile this works; the purchase creates an emotion that connects people with some message or sense of worth, but that wears off quickly. The sophisticated vodka that James Bond drinks may feel classy at first, but it’s just vodka. The new car may have an air of sexy sophistication, but in a few years its just another car needing maintanence.
So there is a need to purchase something else. Keep the emotion going. Even other avenues of trying to find meaning through “distractions” become marketed. Can you be a sports fan getting meaning from throwing yourself into following your team without having to purchase the paraphenalia to show that you are a fan, and go to games that are extremely expensive? Television provides free entertainment, so long as the marketers can try to manipulate you during commercials. You may throw yourselves into the escapist world of “Desperate Housewives,” but also have the need for the latest fashion stoked by the advertising.
Living through this crisis requires one major change: to disconnect meaning from material items, even from material prosperity. We need to break the myth that self-worth is related to ones’ bottom line, and that success at providing for ones’ family or success in ones’ career is a primary source for judging ones’ worth and the meaning in ones’ life. Even the hardest working and most responsible employee might get fired. If life depends on your job status and material prosperity, you are giving “the world” power over your ability to experience and enjoy life. That is a power each individual needs to take control over.
The good news is that we can. When people are forced through divorce, health problems of children or grandchildren, severe injury or a mixture of the above (in the case of one person I know) they can recognize that what they thought gave their life meaning was illusonary and transcient. That forces people to look inside, connect with others, and take stock of what really makes this life worth living. One can have a smaller house or apartment, lose the nice car, not be able to buy the latest fasions, and work at a job that doesn’t seem to provide outward status and success, and still find meaning. One can be out of work, and still find ways to make each day matter.
The key is to understand that meaning comes from inside, and is fostered by ones’ connections with others. All that we accomplish in life and experience perishes. Though we may remember now the names of Galileo and Newton, most people who have graced this planet are gone without a trace, no matter how magnificent their accomplishments in their time. Go back over 5000 years and there are really no records. Yet, of course, all those actions combine to give us the world we have. All that remains from all our efforts is the world as we leave it, altered slightly or greatly by our hands, in combination with the actions of everyone else.
To live through an era of crisis it is important to recognize the futility of ones’ material pursuits with a sense of relief and joy rather than despair. It doesn’t matter if one achieves external success, what matters is ones’ character, effort, and connection with others. Meaning comes from living a life of integrity, not a life requiring external validation. If one lives a life of integrity the validation will come from the connections one has with family, friends and community, as will the satisfaction.
Moreover, if we get off the consumerist maze, recognize our place not only in our communities but also in nature (see it as a treasure, rather than something to be manipulated for material gain), then meaning comes naturally. We know who we are, we have a sense of purpose, we do not need to fill the void with some kind of momentary rush, a little glimmer of satisfaction before giving way to the dull monotony and apparent futility of the modern world. Alienation gives way to creativity and inspiration.
Dr. Phil’s example — the family throwing a ball around rather than going to Disneyland — is perfect. At Disneyland the family is together, but the value of the activity becomes defined as the ability to experience a fantasy created by someone else for a price. When a family plays together, they are connecting on their own and working together, creating their own meaning and value. Nothing against Disneyland, it’s worth visiting. But in terms of building a strong family and enjoying life it’s far more important to play together, and maybe throw a ball around.