“Consumerism, Happiness, and Authenticity

Here is the second paper I wrote for Ecopsychology.

 

 

Consumerism, in creating false desires and playing on fears and insecurities, prevents people from being their authentic selves, from living meaningful lives based on spiritual principles. In making consumption the goal, the soul is lost. The in-take of disposable goods becomes the highest priority at the expense of creative out-lets. We take in, we do not let out. I will cite works, including “The All-Consuming Self” and “The Century of the Self” to explain and defend my thesis, which I will state here: our consumerist society blocks us from reaching our potential, from growing, from being and becoming the men and women we truly are. As we become what we own, we disown our true selves. As we spend our lives in supermarkets and malls, we do not walk on the earth, we neglect our connection to the more-than-human world. Forgetting nature, we forget each other, we forget ourselves.

Consumerism creates inauthentic desires that never allow for full satisfaction. In an essay called “Buddhist Perspectives on Economic Concepts” in the book Mindfulness in the Marketplace, the author writes, “Advertisers stimulate desires by projecting pleasurable images onto the products they sell” (Ven 2002, p. 77). After consumption of the product, we again have the desire to consume, a cyclical pattern wherein we are deceived and deceive ourselves. Advertisements deceive us by promising satisfaction when they will only promote greater dissatisfaction; we deceive ourselves because we do not truly believe the advertisements. We want to believe, perhaps we even convince ourselves we believe, but in our depths we do not believe.

In the documentary “The Century of the Self,” the narrator says, “By satisfying people’s inner selfish desires one made them happy and thus docile” (Curtis 2002, Part 1). It is rare, perhaps impossible, for docility to co-exist with true happiness in the way I define both words. The word ‘docile’ to me conveys a feeling of conformity, unreflecting obedience, tameness, a low opinion of self and a high opinion of others. This is the path to depression, not to joy. Dogs and cows are docile and content when fed. The same is true of some humans, but there will always be those who are not satisfied with being fed, clothed, and sheltered, who seek something that cannot be offered by material satisfaction: independent, courageous, wild men and women, wild in the sense Gary Snyder means when he defines wild people as “unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. Proud and free…fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation” (Snyder 1990, p. 17). Not content with docility, not content with the confines of material satisfaction, looking for something else, beyond the wall.

Now I will look at the advertising slogans of many popular companies. The slogans promise what the products can never give.

Coca-Cola: Open Happiness. As if all we need for happiness is a cold soda. We can let in happiness, by being receptive, by living simply. But we cannot open happiness, by unwrapping presents, by living in order to make and take and get rather than create and be-get. We get to be, we are not alive to get. Getting does not imply being, which cannot be opened, bought, acquired. The more we focus on getting, the less full, happy and true our lives become. The type of happiness Coca-Cola, or any other company, promises is a short-term feeling of satisfaction. This is the happiness of Huxley’s soma (1932), of Prozac or alcohol or a new car; this is not the happiness of a life well lived, a life of independence, generosity, connectedness, love, wildness, a life free from docile contentment, from the gratification that comes with comfort, ease of existence, from not facing what we fear or doing what we love.

Wal-Mart: Save Money, Live Better. Because the prices at Wal-Mart are presumably lower than the prices elsewhere, the shopper gets more stuff for less money. With more stuff, the person can live better. This slogan buys into the “more is better” ideal that is one of the most destructive forces in our society.

Bud Light: Be yourself and make it a Bud Light. This slogan is even more dangerous than Wal-Mart’s slogan. The search for authenticity is the oldest and most worthwhile search there is, and this slogan implies that it does not have to be a search at all. All that is necessary to be yourself is to crack open a cold beer. The idea that we become more ourselves from something outside ourselves is one of the most insidious ideas at the root of addiction. Linda Leonard, in her book Witness to the Fire: Creativity & The Veil of Addiction writes, “Our very being is to question what it means to be. And the questions that we ourselves live are part of the creative process of Being” (1989, p. 214). Here, there are no questions to live, there is only the answer, and the answer is drinking Bud Light.

The list could go on ad nauseam; these are only some of the slogans I have seen in the last few days.

The yearning to be authentic is the yearning most stifled by consumerism. A society based upon the false, based upon insincerity, mock cheerfulness, misleading desires, and manipulation, can never lead to authenticity. The desire for material excess, it is important to remember, is not a true desire. It is a false urge, a created yearning rather than a yearning for a creative outlet. We take in what is already made rather than letting out the unmade, what is borne out of us, out of our urge to express our authentic selves. Rather than being reborn by returning to the depths of the unknown, we attach ourselves to the surface, what is made and known. We do not merely fear the unknown; we deny its existence. We allow ourselves to be owned by comfort; we place what we own over and above who we are. We don’t live out the question of who we are. We dismiss the question altogether.

Those in search of authenticity must therefore go away from the main roads, away from the malls, away from the billboards, must go toward a place where they do not feel mauled, do not feel boarded up and shackled by the dollar bill. We must go away from the false and toward the real, away from the curdling body of the human world and toward the river of life. But the search for authenticity is still a search, still implies craving, yearning. A search for the real implies a desire to go back to when the real did not need to be searched for, a nostalgic longing for the essence of oneself that has been lost and drowned amidst the inessential. That longing for the essential is an essential aspect of many people’s lives, including my own.

Those who are content with superficialities do not change the way things are, are not forced from within to create something better. Those who feel within themselves what Jiddu Krishnamurti called “supreme discontent,” (1975, p. 287) on the other hand, have very little choice in the matter. They do not consciously create; what lies within them unconsciously and constantly works to find its way out.

Purchasing disposable materials, looking to buy some object to add to our subjective sense of self, adds only to the emptiness we are attempting to escape from, adds to the depletion not only to our pocketbooks but also to the unwritten stories and books of our lives. Our story when we grow old becomes not how we became the way we are, not how we became conscious of the beauty and wonder of existence, but how we became increasingly unconscious, more and more automatic in our addictive “fantasy of effortless consuming” (Kanner and Gomes 1995, pg. 78). Our story will tell of how we searched for something to quench our thirst, to satisfy our desires, how at the end we found only a dead-end road, only the bottom of a bottle. The car ran out of gas, the lights went out from the billboards, the neon faded to black. And what was left, when our story was done, was the real, but we were gone.

That can be our story. Or, by becoming ourselves, we can become a part of the real. By finding wholeness intrinsic in everything, already present, we part with the idea that fulfillment can be found in the extrinsic, whether in the form of a P.H.D., LSD, or a Ferrari. When we no longer believe that contentment will come with attainment, the part of our nature repressed by our unnatural lives, that authentic something else we were searching for, presses close to us, returns.

Now we go into the woods and are conscious of each step. We listen to the stillness, we allow ourselves to be moved, to the point where we are almost overwhelmed with love and joy, and, because what we love is being destroyed so that what sucks the lifeblood out of us can be built, we are almost overwhelmed with sadness.

We go back to the supermarket, back to the only place we know to get food. We walk and almost weep at the pathos of it: the old woman pushing the cart, looking for a way to reach the instant coffee high on the shelf; the two young children fighting over a donut as their mother yells at them to be quiet, these two children spending their childhoods in the massive bewilderment of a superstore, when there is this wild and mysterious world all around them, these places of “heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break” (Abbey 1968, p. 243).

And I as walk in the Wal-Mart I remember the peace and serenity I had felt just minutes before in the area surrounding Thumb Butte. I feel my heart breaking. I do my best to have compassion, and I do. I have compassion for the old woman looking for instant coffee, instant energy, something to bring her above, to take her beyond, to make her feel young again. And I have compassion for the two children; I share their frustration with the confinement of their condition. I wish they could be outside, laughing and playing in the open desert, getting pricked by a cactus, looking up with wonder at a peregrine falcon, bursting with gladness in the midst of a world too wonderful for words.

We forget what it’s like to walk on the earth; our feet no longer press down on the soft earth with each step, but on the rigid floor of the supermarket, constructed on and with that softness, made hard, inflexible, unyielding. We do not become grounded, we do not hear the sounds that will pull us joyfully back to the earth; instead, we hear the mechanical voice of the self-service checkout, the mechanical voice of the checkout man or woman, telling us to Have A Good Day. But good is not enough, for we have more than enough; we have an excess of what is thought to provide for a good life and nothing of what actually does. Too much!

Having more than enough leaves us feeling less than ourselves. The good life is the simple life. The good life is the extraordinary life, a life that consists of ordinary acts of simplicity, kindness, and courage. Living a good life means neither constantly submitting to one’s meekness and weakness nor always imposing one’s strength. How to live an extraordinary life! Get back to the earth, climb up to be inspired, return to be grounded and record the inspirations felt above. Listen to the sounds of birds singing, feel the wind and its coolness, perceive the connection felt now, climbing, neither on the ground, below it all, or on the mountain top, above it all. Climbing up and going back down, in the midst of, liminal, a part of what is below and a part of what is above.

Consumerism prevents us from a full connection with the natural world. Think about the time we spend in a supermarket. Especially when it is dark outside, or during a transition from day to night or night to day, we separate ourselves from the world around us. We do not know the difficulty of finding food at night, for it is no more difficult than finding food during the day. We do not find the food at all; we merely get it, acquire it.

We are lost in the supermarket looking for what is found for us. Confused, we wander stores and malls, up and down the escalators, having forgotten how to truly wander, and where.

We become lost when we forget how to be lost, when we lose our choice in the matter. We do not wander in the true sense of the word, for to truly wander is to choose to be lost, to choose lostness over listlessness, to choose joy over despair, to choose life over death. To wander in the world is to be lost in its wonder, to find its beauty, to create meaning without fixed direction. To wander in a supermarket is to feel a loss of purpose, a loss of meaning, to feel despair for the world and the direction it is heading, to desire some quick fix to relieve that despair. And this fix, initially allowing us to forget our suffering, only leads us unwillingly in the same direction the world is going, increasing our suffering, alienating us from our authentic selves, leaving us confused and wandering against our will, lost in a world that is itself lost, adrift in a world we do not understand.

The goal is learn how to be adrift on the tempestuous seas of the world without sinking, without drowning, without unchanging aim but with perpetual purpose, neither giving in to the dangerous illusion of material prosperity nor without compassion and understanding for those who have. The goal is to learn how to return to our roots, to earn the gift of life we have been given, rather than run from it, to realize that we get to live, that we are granted this mysterious and wonderful and forever undeserved gift. And when we get to the end, and death is close at hand, what could be worthier than to look back on our lives and think we deserved some of it, some of what cannot ever be fully deserved, to feel that the way we lived was in conformity with the course of the river, that we receded with the ebb and came back in with the flow.

 

The river flows on, curving around the canyon walls, the unknown becoming known. I look over the canyon, down at the raging river below and beyond at the canyon walls opposite. Beyond those walls there is more of the desert, more of its terrifying and beckoning emptiness. Nowhere do I see the devastation of consumerism, nowhere the smoke of the factory, nowhere the madness of the eight-lane highway. Everywhere there is beauty, everywhere meaning. I love it all. Standing here, longing to explore and wander, longing for life in all its manifold aspects, I love even the interstates, the truck drivers drinking coffee and sharing stories of the road; I love even the supermarkets, the Wal-Mart greeter sharing his simple and hard-earned wisdom with the customers arriving at the store. I love the people, but I cannot bear what is happening to them, to us.

My calling in life is not to try to withstand and hold down these feelings on the interstates and in the supermarkets, not to undergo the needless suffering of a life spent seeking the impossible goal of material fulfillment. My calling is to break out from that confinement, to load up my pack and saddlebags, to walk and ride on a more desolate and yet more connected, whole and undivided highway, not so I can escape to some utopia, but so I can arrive at a place of clarity. I am on a pilgrimage, though I do not always know where the mecca is that I seek. I know it only when I feel it. I only know that I must walk on past the limits of what I know and can comprehend, beyond the skyline and beneath the thinking mind.

Where the horizon ends, my search begins.

 

 

References

Abbey, E. (1968). Desert Solitaire. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Curtis, A., & British Broadcasting Corporation. (2002). The century of the self. Rockford, Ill: BN Pub.

Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. New York: Perennial Library.

Leonard, L. S. (1989). Witness to the fire: Creativity and the veil of addiction. Boston: Shambhala.

Kanner, A. D. and Gomes, M. E., “The All Consuming Self,” in Roszak, T, Gomes, M.E., and Kanner, A. D. (Ed). (1995). Ecopsychology. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Krishnamurti, J. (1975). The First and Last Freedom. New York: Harper & Row.

Ven P.A, “Buddhist Perspectives on Economic Concepts” in Hunt, B. A. (Ed.). (2002). Mindfulness in the Marketplace : Compassionate Responses to Consumerism. Berkeley CA, USA: Parallax Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com)

Snyder, G. (1990). The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

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