When Is It Okay to Have?

English: The iPad on a table in the Apple case

iPad in an Apple case (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?


Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have the love-hate relationship with technology that almost everyone seems to have nowadays. I kept my dumb phone for the longest time because I didn’t want to get sucked into the world of iPhone lovers, yet now I am one of their ranks. I didn’t want to internet bank, didn’t want to read ebooks, yet I no longer mail checks to pay bills, and not only do I own a few ebooks, but I’ve even e-published a short story.

This week, a friend mentioned a village that houses a radio telescope that is so sensitive that there aren’t any cell phones within a certain number of miles. Intrigued, I did a little research. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is located in Green Bank, West Virginia, and there is a 13,000-square mile area around this observatory in which technologies like cell phones, Wi-Fi, TV and radio broadcasts simply don’t work. I wonder how people can live in a place like this. Certainly there must be some technology, but I imagine it’s like stepping back in time, somewhat.

On a much less drastic scale, I remember my friend Amy’s blog post last year, regarding her struggle with turning off the TV. It was well and good for her, I thought at the time, but I was not willing to even consider giving up my TV. Of course, at the time, I had a new baby and counted on the TV to get me through the three A.M. feedings—and those many nights when Ian didn’t sleep at all. There were maybe three shows that I followed regularly (shows that I actually sat down and watched every time a new episode aired), but everything else was mindless viewing.

Fast forward to where I am now: I can’t remember the last time I followed a particular program. Downtown Abbey? Never seen an episode (didn’t even know how to pronounce it until someone corrected me). I don’t know when this phenomenon happened, maybe when I was in the middle of a good book and just chose not to watch. Also, as the baby got older, and then my elder son started going to school five days a week instead of two, my life got a whole lot busier. The few spare minutes I had to myself weren’t worth wasting by watching some other mom making a spectacle of herself on “reality” TV. I have enough of my own reality to deal with, thank you very much.

From time to time over the past year, I’ve thought of Amy’s post, often reflecting that, if it were just me, I could get by with the local news and Netflix. There is something strangely powerful about the TV; it is hypnotizing. One night after the kids went to bed, the TV was still on, and I suddenly realized that I was waiting until the commercial break before getting up to brush my teeth. It wasn’t even a show I care about. My husband and I laughed about how we got sucked into the program simply because it was on.

The technology is even more disruptive at work. As a bookkeeper for a small business, I am dependent on crappy accounting software that, unfortunately, is pretty universal, so it’s what our accountant requires us to use. At least once a week (and more often once a day), the software crashes, despite the fact that it’s the latest version, and I rail at the computer and how stupid it is. Then, while I’m waiting for it to restart, I pick up my iPhone and check my e-mail.

Yet I can’t be too mad at this technology, without which I couldn’t have this virtual monologue. But it does drive me nuts that we’re so dependent on it. When the power goes out, we forget how to function. God forbid a cash register goes down, and a clerk can’t count change without the register doing the math. A time traveler from the nineteenth century would most likely think us completely inept.

Speaking of time travel, I started a series of books last year, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, in which the protagonist travels from the 1940s to the 1700s and decides to stay, despite the lack of technology. I mean, we’re talking cold baths, here. Not only that, but after returning to the twentieth century, she still chooses to go back in time again. And all for love. Now, I’m not advocating giving up hot showers (please, no), but I do think that there are some things that are more important than super fast download speeds and whatnot.

My five-year-old is at the age now where he has several television shows that he likes, and if I weren’t paying attention, I could easily let him rot in front of the TV all day. When he asks why I won’t let him watch as much as he wants, I remind him that we have a house full of toys and a backyard where he can play now. I’m fortunate that he often remembers on his own, and tonight, he won my heart again. He was excited that we have a new table, where he can do his schoolwork and drawings. Right now, he’s finishing a poster about black bears, which he’ll share with his class on Monday. And he asked if I would sit with him at his new table and have a “conpersation” about his poster. “And then we can just talk about other things or play games and stuff,” he said. You can believe that his request did this mama’s heart good.

So can you do it? Can you turn the TV off for any evening? Or can you put your smart phone down for an hour, resist the temptation to check your e-mail or play another round of Words with Friends? Cutting my TV consumption down was the first step; now I try to use my iPhone less when the kids are up. What can you do to allow all the wonderful technologies of the twenty-first century to aid but not impede on your life?