…Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Stuff

by Dr Don Fausel

I remember reading a Christmas article by Dorothy Day back in the early 1950s. In her inimitable style she paraphrased Luke 2:1. Her version was:

“…a decree went out from Macy’s, and Walmart, and Sears, that the whole world should do their Christmas shopping.”

I substituted Walmart and Sears because the other department stores she mentioned are no longer in business.

I believe Dorothy Day was a prophet of excessive consumerism that has become more contagious in our society in recent years. According to Peter Stearns in his book Consumerism in World History, consumption has been around for centuries in different societies, but excessive consumerism is more current. To go way back in history, the Sacred Book of China, Tao Te Ching, which literally means the way, was written in China around the 6th century BCE by Lao Tsu. Verse 46 seems to be a forewarning of what we are experiencing today. Here are several lines from that verse.

“There is no greater loss than losing the Way, no greater curse than covetousness, no greater tragedy than discontentment; the worst of faults is to always want more—always. Contentment alone is enough. Indeed the bliss of eternity can be found in contentment.”

We all know that many of us buy things we don’t need; that advertisers exploit consumers through promoting campaigns that encourage us to buy stuff we can do without, because they know that we believe that more stuff will make us happier, smarter or more loved as we pursue the American Dream that’s built on the mentality that more stuff is better. The American Dream has become the American Nightmare.

I suspect that the philosopher/comedian, and later day Lao Tzu, George Carlin was way ahead of his time when he chose “stuff” to characterize consumerism in the early 1980s in a routine that he named A Place for my Stuff. Since then the word “stuff” has become the symbol for all those things that we buy, but could do without.

As you might know, there are 12-Step programs for shopaholics. Compulsive shopping can be as debilitating as gambling or alcohol addiction. Psychologists believe that the person who is a compulsive shopper uses shopping to soothe him/herself rather than dealing with life’s challenges head on. Obsessive shopping ultimately can lead to worse problems than the one from which the person is seeking relief. In many incidents the compulsive shopper’s behavior puts his/her family’s welfare in grave jeopardy, which often leads to divorce.

In the words of Lao Tsu,

“She/he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”

Here’s another quote, this one from I Wish You Enough by Bob Perks,

“When having more leaves you empty, you’ll discover true happiness lies in enough!”

Or how about one from Gandhi,

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

or as we used to say in the Bronx,

“Enough already!”

Although all these quotations might be thought-provoking, they don’t provide a black and white answer for our problems with stuff, or the answer to the question, “What’s enough under every situation?” We need to determine whether we’re concerned about how much stuff we need versus how much stuff we want. For example, do I need to buy a car because my car doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that the new models have? I don’t believe we need a bureaucrat to figure it out for us, but sometimes we need help to motivate us to make the right choice in answering the question—what is enough for me?

Here are two YouTube videos and a book that you might find to be helpful:

This one is by Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff:

She also wrote a book with Annie Conrad titled The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health and a Vision of Change. The title says a lot.

This video is a TED TALK, A Rich Life with Less Stuff: The Minimalists:

In future blogs I will continue with the theme of happiness and point out how the pursuit of stuff produces more destruction than just what it does to us as individuals, but is also is connected with the damage it creates for Mother Earth.

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