Wednesday, October 22, 2008

From What We Need to What We Want

I used to have this friend, Larry, who was a single parent raising a 4 year old son, Little Larry. The very notion of trying to bring up even an angel in this modern world is beyond my imagination. I could never do it. I have very limited patience and have decided that the best I could do in this world is to be an uncle or family friend.

Confirming the hardships of single parenthood, Larry one time told me how much he just hated taking his son to the mall because they could never pass before any toy section without his son having an emotional breakdown. “He screams and falls in the floor and bawls, ‘Daddy, Daddy, I want it!!’ and Larry would tell him, “But you don't need it.” And with that huge wall of logic, Little Larry would stare a second and then scream at the top of his little lungs, “But Daddy, I need it!!” ( A good example why you should never attempt to argue, reason or negotiate with a 4 year old.)
Hearing this story was something of a revelation for me at the time. Our whole society, this system of consumption and materialism, is driven by the intentional confusion and the blurring of the difference between what we need from what we want. I can’t tell you how many times I have got home after shopping and thought, “Now, why the hell did I buy THIS?” At the time, I had apparently been convinced that I needed it but it later seemed like I had been temporarily possessed by a consumer demon. Did I have some kind of seizure? Or maybe I grabbed the wrong bag on the way out?

But could any of us look around their homes or office and collect all the things in one side of the room and mark it, THINGS I NEEDED and on the other side, THINGS I ONLY WANTED? Is this really such a heresy? There is no guarantee that one day, very soon, all those luxuries could be snatched away. People survive it but it isn't something you like to dwell on for very long or very deeply.

Some of the ancient Romans, of all people, warned of the pernicious effects of luxuries and how they weakened the morals. Juvenal wrote, “Luxury, more deadly than any foe, has laid her hand upon us, and avenges a conquered world.” The great writers and philosophers of that age felt, not unlike American historians, that the true spirit of empire was based on its pioneering and austere origins. They also felt that this decline, caused by luxuries, was an effect of the very success of its domination of the known world. Perhaps they fooled themselves into believing that a love for the sumptuous luxuries of life was not a Roman trait at all.

But, alas, people by nature are easy to spoil and can become too attached to their comforts. This can lead them to selfishness and laziness. It is an addiction and over time corrodes our ability to resist. Also, and more importantly, the fear of the loss of those unnecessary comforts can affect our judgment in crucial matters even though we may not know it. We all slowly but surely become slaves to our possessions. Over time, we develop this idea that, for some reason, we deserve our luxuries- leading to a feeling of entitlement. After all, why am I so lucky to live in excess when so much of the world has very little? (And my living the way I do guarantees that they will continue living as they do.)

The mind plays tricks and it seems you can be convinced that life would be less worth living without, or your status in the world has been diminished by some pretty ridiculous and frivolous things. In the USA, it has gotten so commonplace and so widespread that people simply take the warped view for granted. Ostentatious consumption and flagrant display of wealth is all the rage, (as if it is something to be proud of)- even if all those trinkets and all that "bling" were bought on credit or from someone else's sweat.

Although I would freely confess that I am no better than the next person about my needs and my wants, but I did at one time try to make a list of things I absolutely needed, as opposed to the things I merely wanted. Mind you, I might not enjoy life as much but it is a surprisingly short list. You should try it sometime.

Here is my list:
1. a warm or sheltered private place to live
2. hot water for hygiene
3. A variety of healthy food and fresh clean water
4. some means of cooking food
5. clothes that fit me, cover my bits and look clean
6. a friend with whom I can share ideas and memories and emotions ( in a pinch, I could definitely survive with a pet)
7. some kind of hobby or access to information to stimulate my mind

Now I know I MUST be forgetting something, something obvious. Feel free to comment. I am not Little Larry and am quite willing to negotiate without any tantrums.

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