This week, a small group of friends and I pondered when it’s okay to not just want but to have new things. We live in a commercially-driven, consumer culture, in which to have is often portrayed as the greatest good. To not have… Well, what’s the point of living if you don’t have the latest and greatest thing?
There has always been a disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but in a nation when even the poorest of us can have a free cell phone and access to computer technology through public libraries, it’s easy to mistake great strides in progress with a feeling of entitlement to those things progress provides.
Trying to pinpoint when our culture made this shift, I automatically thought of the iPod, the iMac, the iPhone, and the iPad, just to name a few. Now, I enjoy my Apple products, but why the focus on “i”? The way we treat these commodities as if we can’t function without the latest version, I think the more fitting prefix would be “my.”
But the problem has been around much longer than that. When was it that women decided that the fancier the diamond ring, the more they’re truly loved? When did it become not just okay but common practice to take out a second or third mortgage in order to pay for a wedding? When did we allow our children to become miniature dictators about their birthday celebrations, pitching fits amidst balloons, presents, and pony rides because it’s still not enough? When did we start labeling entrees that could easily feed two or three as a single meal, convincing consumers that normal portions are not enough?
Have I touched a nerve yet? Even those of us who strive to live more simply can’t help but be affected because we live in the middle of Overabundance and Overindulgence Central. And when the extreme becomes the norm, you look like the odd one out when you try to reclaim the former, simpler ways.
Simpler does not mean easier, by the way. Nowadays, for example, it’s a real fight to encourage kids to be creative on their own, without the influence of TV. Yet we have fancy flatscreens with hundreds of channels and DVRs to record all the shows that we cannot live without. We think about the joys of living in harmony with nature, maybe off the grid in a little cabin. And as long as that cabin comes equipped with wifi, well and good because God knows it’s going to get boring listening to yourself think too much.
I am just as guilty as anyone else, which is probably why I’m coming down so hard. While I’ve never been a technological pioneer (I’d rather let someone else figure out the glitches first), I have succumbed to the “i” fever and feel practically naked if I leave my house without my MacBook and my iPhone. I own ridiculous winter clothes that I either choose to wear in the heat (because I live in Florida) or that I refuse to get rid of because it snowed here in 1989, so it could happen again any time, right? I dream about a five-bedroom house, yet we’re a family of four. I don’t dream about cleaning all that extra space, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice for each of the kids to have his own room, plus a spare for guests, and an extra one for an office or just storage for all my – gulp – junk?
There is something addictive about wanting more. And simply getting more does not solve the problem. It’s the pursuit that drives us. It’s the difference between those who work 60 hours a week in order to pay the bills and those who work all that extra to be able to acquire more stuff that they don’t need.
My friend was worried about her desire for an iPad. Everyone has one, right? She salivates over them, while chastising herself at the same time because the money for an iPad could be money toward a good cause. Should we never get anything we want? Should we sell all our possessions to help the poor and take a vow of poverty to make things more fair? And what then? We see the iPad we wanted to begin with, salivate over it again, and then feel both envy and an undeserved self-righteousness that we are so good to deny ourselves what we so want.
I think both extremes are dangerous. On the one hand, you have people who obsess over things. They ruin their lives not only by buying what they don’t need, but by continuing to do so to their financial and emotional detriment. On the other hand, you have people who are bitter in their denial of self.
The problem lies in that people don’t care. Or maybe they care too much – about the wrong things. They don’t even try to justify anymore. It would be so easy to say, Once I buy this [fill in the product of your choice], I’ll be more efficient, and I’ll have more time to spend with my family. And that’s a good thing, right? But more often, we say, I want it, therefore I deserve it, and I don’t care what lengths I have to go to in order to get it.
My friends and I came to the quasi-comfortable conclusion that it’s not wrong in and of itself to spend money on a new iPad or a nice outfit or whatever. Sometimes a little gift to yourself can lift your mood, help solve a problem, or keep things on an even keel, so you don’t drown in the extremes.
But before you make that next purchase of whatever it is, think about the purpose your things serve. Or put another way: is the new iPad serving you, or are you serving it?