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The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers ...
"The World Is Too Much With Us"
At my son's back-to-school night, I studied the smiling self-portraits of second-graders hung in the hallway under the bulletin-board banner asking, "Who Am I?" Our challenge as parents that evening was to find our own children among the sea of colorful, unsigned faces. To help, each portrait had a carefully printed description of its creator stapled to the bottom.
One child wrote that he liked dinosaurs and soccer, and hated cleaning up his room. Another said that she had a new bike, a baby sister, and coyly mentioned that her best friend's name began with a "B." Another noted that he was tall, had green eyes, and liked science and his cat. And one of the pieces of writing stood out, not for what it said, but for what it didn't.
The essay began with "I have ..." and a long list of things followed: a new video-game system, a signed celebrity photograph, coin and card collections, and a television, among other items. There wasn't a word about what the child did or didn't like, no mention of doing sports or music or reading or art. It didn't include anything about friends, or family, or even pets.
Of course, all kidssometimes get the "gimmes," or get obsessed with their toys or the latest collecting fad at school. But surely there was something else the child could say to describe himself. What kind of materialistic values was he learning, anyway?, I thought, smug with the knowledge that my own child was the tall one interested in science. For the other young writer, "who I am" was simply a summary of what he owned. It struck me as sad and strange.
And, I'll admit, a bit unnerving. As I stood in the school hallway, that little essay made something go off in my head. And I didn't like what I was hearing.
That kid wasn't the only one living in the place where "who I am" and "what I have" meet. Frankly, my own feelings about wanting, buying, and owning objects at the time were making me increasingly uneasy. Like ray inability to see a house, while on vacation, without wanting to own it. Or my worrying that my kids would fall behind their classmates if I didn't get some new CD-ROM or another. Or my near-obsessive, months-long search for the right couch for our family room.
What me, materialistic? I'd never seen myself that way. But there I was, pricing waterfront property instead of enjoying the view, agonizing about depriving my kids instead of noticing the pile of unused CD-ROMs they already owned, and sweating over fabric swatches for a fantasy family room—instead of spending the time actually doing something with my family. If I wasn't materialistic, I sure was giving a lot of thought and meaning to material things. And I was beginning to find that my expectations of objects to do something—as well as the time and energy I was devoting to them—wasn't giving me what I wanted.
Okay, we live in a material world, and the stuff we own matters. That doesn't necessarily make us materialistic, but what we drive, where we live, and what we wear, collect, or covet can all have meaning. After all, possessions can make our lives easier, give aesthetic pleasure, offer a certain amount of security, deliver a message to other people, and sometimes even deliver on the promise of providing hours of fun. And given the current climate of consumption where messages linking ownership with identity are louder than ever, the power in possessions isn't lost on anyone. Not on me, and not even on a seven-year-old. Or perhaps, especially not on a seven-year-old.
So what's wrong with this picture? I knew that I wasn't thrilled with the ever-expanding space that objects seemed to be occupying in my life and in my thoughts, and I wanted some fast answers. To try to get a handle on the issue, I started asking questions: First off, did anyone else feel the same way?
I found, overwhelmingly, that I wasn't alone. Plenty was wrong with the current picture; 95 percent of Americans said most of us are "very materialistic," and more than 85 percent believe that young people are far too preoccupied with owning and consuming things, according to a Merck Family Fund study. And the people that I started grilling on the subject agreed that materialism increasingly dominates our lives and may undermine our most important values. From my colleagues and professional contacts in my work as a newspaper and magazine writer to fellow teachers and students at the college where I was teaching English, from total strangers to close friends, the widespread concern—not just for ourselves, but for our kids and the future—became clear. But it's also complex. Objects are important, no doubt. But at what price?
That honest, anonymous elementary-school essay had taken the importance of objects to a troubling extreme, as if owning and being are one and the same. Possessions don't entirely fill "who I am" for most people, but they naturally occupy space as part of "self." Let's face it: It's fun to buy a pair of new shoes sometimes. It's a pleasure to get the car you've coveted for a while. And there's nothing like that look on a child's face when she opens your gift and it's just what she'd hoped for. Objects can, at times, make us happy. But ultimately, do they give us what we really want?
And that's where things started getting tricky. Possessions have meaning, and always have and always will. So I began to consider the issue from another angle: Not whether objects themselves are good or bad, but how and why the faith we place in ownership may intrude on what we want most.
I started by looking backward. This isn't the first time anyone has questioned how the importance of "stuff" affects other areas of our lives, and it seemed to make sense that our current state of materialism might have grown out of the ancient idea of materializing. Materializing is a basic element of age-old myth and miracles, when the spirit of something becomes real and tangible. In the spirit of goodness, manna appeared in the desert to save the starving. Loaves and fishes multiplied to feed the hungry. A genie appeared at the hour of need to grant wishes.
And in the tradition of materializing, we've had countless stories of transformation, where something bad turns good, and something good gets better. A fairy godmother appears, and Cinderella's rags become a ball gown, a pumpkin turns into a coach, and mice become coachmen. The frog turns into a prince, the small snake in an African folktale becomes a king.
As a result of great faith or good acts, miracles and miraculous changes occur, taking earthly shape in what's needed or desired. Our fables illustrate fulfillment of especially unlikely possibility, capturing the moment when hope becomes reality. The proof of that power takes form in something we can see and touch.
Magic? Perhaps. There's power in thought and deed, and magic moves in mysterious ways, both in the old stories and in real life. And if magic manifests itself in something tangible, well then, isn't the object magical, too?
Magic is a mixed bag in the old stories. Take the red shoes in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale: The shoes enable their wearer, a girl named Karen, to realize her dream to dance. But once she begins to dance she can't stop—and she can't remove the shoes, either. In the end, she's finally forced to forego her feet (a helpful woodcutter takes care of the job) in order to achieve some peace.
It's a grisly and ominous conclusion. And while it's unlikely that this morality tale plays out to such an extreme in our own lives—sure, we could point fingers at Imelda Marcos or Leona Helmsley, but it is a fairy tale, after all—the story points up the ambiguous nature of the power in possessions. Be careful what you wish for, it warns. Ownership can give you what you want, but there may be a hidden cost.
With further research, I began to realize that materialism is an issue that's not easily solved or summarized. Much as I tried to compartmentalize cause and effect, it didn't have a simple beginning, a middle, and an end. And as I began talking with people who might be "experts" on the subject—mental health pros, members of the clergy, and academics—along with reading ancient philosophers and more recent social commentators, the issue only got more complex.
But as I became more and more immersed in the subject, at least one thing started to become clearer to me: The problem of materialism encroaching on more important values, it seemed, was not just about getting (or not getting) the shoes or the car or the gift. And while recent, over-the-top consumption has created concern about new houses that look like hotels, landfills crowded with cast-off computers, and renewed discussion about the legacy of limited resources we may be leaving our grandchildren, worries about materialism dig in still deeper. Which led me to believe the question wasn't just about what is or isn't excessive. The deeper issue is the power we seek from possessions, and its repercussions on other areas of our lives.
That power appears, like the manna in the desert, with faith. Faith that the new shoes may be the key to getting the cute guy to take notice, or that they are the way to get over a lousy day at a dead-end job you should have left long ago, or that owning them will somehow alleviate boredom with the rest of your life.
Faith that the new car is the answer to the nagging sense of feeling older and undesirable, or that it will keep you safe from all those crazy drivers out there, or that it will finally show your snotty neighbor just how successful you really are.
Faith that the gift to your child will atone for a lack of time and energy in the past, or that it will help make him brighter, or that it will somehow make it easier for the two of you to talk. Or faith, for example, that my fantasy family room (where, needless to say, nobody would ever fight, tattle, leave dirty socks, or spill grape juice) would play out in real life if I just got the right couch. Unlike the manna in the desert, however, this kind of faith doesn't just translate into the material good; it is the material good.
With faith in the power of possessions to answer deeper needs, the subject becomes the object. And the object becomes the answer.
Who doesn't want to believe in magic, in answers obtained with the flick of a credit card? Sure, a measure of belief in material things—that the new pair of shoes will fit, the car will run, the kid might like the gift, and it won't break immediately—is essential to functioning in the world. And like the small, bright flicker that emerged along with the evils out of Pandora's box, hope—that change is possible, that improvement is available, that pain has an end—is what can keep any of us going when times get tough. But when an object doesn't give you what yon really need, what next?
The promise of possessions to fulfill a tangle of needs, wants, and desires is seductive, fast, and easy. But it also takes up space, not just in our closets, but in our lives. It takes up time. It takes up energy. And I found that for me, as well as for people who spoke with me about materialism in their own lives, it may not be enough:
I thought my kids would stop fighting over control of the TV when we bought another. Now they fight about who gets to watch the new TV.
I buy clothes and bring them home and when I look at them a few days later, they're always wrong. The size isn't quite right, or the color is off, or the style isn't really me. I buy things hoping to find what I'm looking for, but I always seem to end up feeling dissatisfied.
It seems like every time I go to a party these days, all anyone can talk about is what they just bought, or what they're planning to buy. I keep thinking back to when we were younger and all that stuff didn't seem to matter so much. Nobody seems to know how to have fun anymore.
My four-year-old can't pass by a thing without wanting it. And when he finally gets the toy, it's not what he thought it would be. Five minutes later he's demanding something else. All I seem to hear is `I want, I want, I want.'
What do we want from ownership? And why does having what we want and wanting what we have seem so tough these days?
during dinner from someone trying to sell something, for many of us, it's part of a regular reality. Engaging in modern life means living with a barrage of information on things to buy.
And why not? After all, we live in a world that focuses on getting and spending, creating and selling. And through it all, millions of people support their families, putting a roof over their heads and food on the table by contributing to the process. While those hiding out in the woods might eloquently disparage this reality (although even Thoreau, during the two years in his simple cabin, made regular trips out to town for meals and companionship), there's not a whole lot anyone can do about it. And while we could endlessly debate whether the vast volume of messages that we now receive are morally reprehensible or useful, necessary tools, there's no question that they simply are.
It doesn't take a marketing genius to understand the premise of dissatisfaction uniting the voices and images in all those messages: You've got a problem, and there is a purchasable solution. Something is inadequate and needs to be fixed, improved, or, better yet, replaced. Something is scary or dangerous, and needs to be controlled. Something is missing and the hole it's left in your life needs to be filled.
A lot has been said about the evils of advertising and its supposedly subliminal messages that glorify greed and violence and promise everything from fabulous sex to stellar athletic performance. And much has been made of sales pitches that undermine everything from family values to family finances. Been there, done that. The bottom line is this: Like it or not, it's still part of the scenery.
Within that scenery are some old stories. Messages for breath mints or perfume echo legends of magic potions and eternal love. The tale of King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold, appears in the pitch for furniture polish or a software program. Villains and heroes, magic and miracles abound, but in the modern retelling, the nasty bits are cut out. We don't hear that the potion that may have guaranteed eternal love also meant eternal sleep, or that Midas's magic power also meant that his daughter turned to gold like everything else. Like the perfect fit of the glass slipper in the fairy tale, there's a problem, and the answer lies in the promise of transformation: Acquiring something magically eliminates your troubles. Mastering possibilities becomes a matter of using a credit card.
But let's get real here. Do we truly believe that the flawless face of the fourteen-year-old model will become ours with the purchase of the right moisturizer? That drinking one kind of beer over another is the answer to loneliness? That using a particular dishwasher detergent will make your mother-in-law admire you? Or that installing the right brand of cabinets will be enough to bring folks together for cozy chats in the kitchen?
Of course not. We don't blindly buy into the messages of marketers, eager for a sale. But there's no question that the volume of words and images telling stories of miraculous change—and oh, so easily had!—are greater than ever before. And the human desire—for everlasting love, the security of riches, or whatever else we might wish for—remains.
All that external wisdom floating around can strike a complex, internal chord of desire when we least expect it. And while we may not wholeheartedly, simple-mindedly embrace the one-note, purchasable solution to meet that desire, we can't help but hear it.
You hear that the fast-food meal is no longer just a hamburger and fries—it's the break you need today. You hear that the athletic gear, endorsed by a sports superstar, is imbued with the talent of champions. You hear that the brand of bourbon you drink is a way to communicate something positive about the sort of person you are, or wish to be. Over and over again, you hear it, you see it, and maybe you even start to feel it. It's not a straight shot from acquisition to experience, from ownership to identity, but through sheer volume and repetition, a path gets forged.
The spiritual, emotional, and social significance of objects is nothing new. For thousands of years, people have put their faith in objects, from amulets to icons, to control the unknown, offer protection from evil or misfortune, and bring good luck. Long before this vast amount of information on problems and material solutions existed, ownership and display of objects has been a way to communicate power, status, and wealth. What's different these days is how acutely we may feel the downside of placing faith in possessions—and the impact of the power of acquisition and ownership on the way we live, connect to others, and view ourselves. Where do we draw the line on that faith?
The fact that we are now inundated with messages linking objects and the limitless gratification of desires is just part of what's contributed to the current climate of materialism. But what other factors make possessions so powerful these days? Several things may contribute:
The urgency of technology. Basic needs such as food, shelter, and protection from dangerous elements haven't changed. However, as we have gained knowledge of and control over unknowns through technology, the concept of what we need to survive has grown. And not without reason: The accelerated pace of technological developments over the last three decades brings up new needs and different, possibly more efficient, solutions. Now, as in the past, survival may sometimes be a matter of possessing certain tools.
What's different now, however, is that today's frenetic pace involves an infinite, ever-changing variety of material solutions. This idea hit home one day in the early 1990s when I ran into a neighbor on my block in Brooklyn. A kind, gentle man who was once a well-known musician, he had gotten involved with drugs, was convicted for robbery, and had spent the better part of the last decade in prison. Now he was out, clean and sober, and quickly getting back on track with his music. That day he was hauling a Selectric typewriter home, a perfectly good find from a discard pile on the street. "Look!" he said, his eyes lighting up. "This is a great machine. I know," he said, grinning, "because I used to steal them!"
Admiring his haul, I didn't have the heart to tell him that Selectrics were a dime a dozen on any given garbage day in our neighborhood at that time. Or that if he looked a bit more, he could probably even find an early, working PC and dot matrix printer. With my own mind occupied by whether I should have faster speed, laser printing, and other features that were then the latest in computer technology, my neighbor's delight in an old electric typewriter seemed a touching time warp.
To keep up with such speedy changes, we're forced to give material objects more thought. Solving problems we never knew about in the past has now become a pressing necessity.
Like the Luddites, the group of rebel British laborers in the early nineteenth century who destroyed textile-making machinery in hopes of preserving their jobs and way of life, we can rage against machines. But, as the Luddites soon discovered, the tide keeps coming in. Change occurs whether we want it or not; survival may depend on adapting to technology.
Just how much is uncertain. In recent years, rapid technological advances have resulted in more purchasable, problem-solving options than ever. Yet within the benefits of the new is a warning that works on a fear that's timeless: If you don't buy in now, you may be left behind, excluded, or even perish.
The increasing array of problems and products. In the 1950s, supermarkets displayed about 3,000 items; today, they may stock upwards of 30,000. Every day, around thirty-four new food products alone are introduced. The dizzying array of new items reflects a microsplitting of problems to create more "must-have" new solutions.
Take toothpaste, for example. The choice there is no longer a matter of simply picking up one brand over another. It now means considering an ocean of answers to a whole host of problems, such as a debate between "oral health" vs sex appeal, or gel vs paste. And then there are still the troubles of tartar, plaque, gingivitis, and halitosis that need attacking. The decision becomes still more complicated when you throw in factors like whiteness, brightness, tastiness, and cool appearance, like sparkles or stripes in the stuff. Yikes!
All those options demand attention. Okay, so maybe you don't have an existential dilemma every time you're in the pharmacy aisle. But the sheer number of choices requires engaging, if only for a few seconds, in order to make a decision. Sure, the bits of thought and effort you expend are small, but they can add up. And the process starts all over again when you move to, say, the snacks section.
In the early days of automobiles, Henry Ford announced that a customer could have a Model T in any color he wanted—so long as it was black. It made the choice of choosing a car simpler, for sure. But since we're not about to go back to such a "take it or leave it" approach to buying cars (or for that matter, anything else), we've now got to deal with nearly limitless options. Obviously, we want choices; we ask for them. But the growing number of choices of material things demands more of us.
More products connecting the "spirit" of the subject with material objects. The number of objects tied in to other subjects—from characters in books, on television, or in movies, to real-life sports stars and other celebrities—has exploded in recent years. Consider the Davy Crockett coonskin cap of the past against today's billion-dollar licensing business, which includes everything from food to bedsheets to plastic figures, each imbued with the essence of a character's experience.
Excerpted from dematerializing by Jane Hammerslough. Copyright © 2001 by Jane Hammerslough. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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