Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on Consumerism

Being at home gives me a lot of time to think about consumerism and its effect on suburban American family life. This topic has been explored in depth before, I'm sure, but I think it's interesting to reflect on its inner workings in my own life.

First of all, talking about things that one owns, or does not own and wishes to own, is a great way to keep conversation on a surface level, to ensure that nothing sensitive is breached. In a word, it's safe. It's safe to talk about new refrigerators and cell phones and computers and other products designed to make life more interesting, more glamorous, more efficient. In fact, I've observed that one can conduct almost all of one's social interactions around this safety in things. This keeps anxiety low because there is no fear of touching something real when the topic of conversation is always this or that new product. Of course, it must be asked what we're missing living in this way, organizing our lives around things, worshiping things that aren't meant to be worshiped, longing for things that are dead and cannot long for us in return.

Another aspect of this is the thrill of the hunt and the catalyst of desire, which is especially present when bored and with plenty of time on one's hands. I learned from my friends Evan and Steph that a hydration backpack for exercising and hiking and stuff was on sale at Costco. I really liked it and decided right then I really needed it and wanted one. The next day I went on with my day as normal, but as soon as I remembered it I started calling Costcos in the area obsessively trying to find it. I texted Evan to find out where he got it. As soon as I found out, I tried to call but no one picked up. In a rush I left to try to get one because Evan said there were only a handful left. The store closed in an hour, so I had to hurry. Then I had to borrow my Dad's Costco card to get in, because he had already looked in another Costco for one earlier that day and I didn't want to ask him again. I arrived, rushed to where I thought it would be, and to my extreme relief, there were two left. It was not quite as much on sale as I thought it would be, but it didn't matter. I called home to see if they wanted the other one for their own use, as I would take mine with me when I left. They did, so I bought two, using debit and worried I didn't have enough to cover it, but o well, it was approved and I left satisfied.

Now this is a familiar tale in American consumerist culture. But the thrill of it was both scary and exhilarating. The unthinking desire that propelled me for a mere object I would use maybe twice a week, if that, was somewhat insane. I then thought of Buddhism and the Noble Truth that desire is at the root of suffering. I experience so much suffering in my life because I want so many things. I want to be better than I am, have more and more expensive and cooler things than I have, I want to look better, to eat better, to be better in other people's eyes. I want respect, I want to achieve so much, I want to be recognized for something good and beautiful that I produce. I realize that it is all this unfulfilled desire that leaves me totally unsatisfied with my life, even when I have so much, and so much to be thankful for. It's actually pretty incredible. It's like an extremely powerful spell. It doesn't actually make sense. When I think about how the entire world economy is based on unlimited desire for more things I can barely comprehend it. Yet without our economics our whole civilization would crumble...or would it? Somehow we've been told that the way out of the recession is to want more and to buy more. "Consumer Confidence" is such an important economic indicator. I think that's all ridiculous. There should be another economic indicator: "Consumer Awareness of Not Needing Another Thing". That would be extremely low, speaking from my own experience. But where does it all end?
I've been thinking about the wedding "industry" lately, and I find it interesting how the whole purpose of the wedding is to receive a bunch of stuff that basically replicates the two households in which the two people grew up. And with people delaying marriage later and later due to a variety of circumstances, I'm wondering how big the impact on the economy is from such a delay. I don't know. It's all a lot to think about, but I just can't understand the insane desire for things that rests deep within me on some fundamental level.

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