I hate consumerism. I hate other people telling me what I should buy in order to define myself. I hate the accumulation of “stuff.” Most of all, I hate that I see these very things within myself. Sometimes, I get so worked up that I want to throw almost everything away (except my books, of course, because I need them for my “job”). Yet, thanks to my perceptive wife who does not put up with nonsense, I am seeing that my principle error lay in my inability to make an important distinction.
First, one must see humans as being by nature, consumers (if one doesn’t see this as axiomatic, then not much else can be said on the subject). This is not the principle definition of personhood, but it is an unavoidable fact. Thus, my first error was to attempt to negate all forms of consumption. This is untenable. What is tenable is to distinguish between selective and un-selective consumption (okay, I’m not that creative at coming up with terms). Once this distinction is made, I can perceive clearly that my “beef” is not with consumption as a whole, but with un-selective consumption. That is, the thought that one must consume x because it is consumable.
I see this most often in American culture in relations to humor or fun. The first question someone asks a child returning from school is most often, “Did you have fun today?” instead of, “What did you learn?”. Or, if one is being persuaded to take part in an activity, the strongest argument is that “It will be fun!” The assumption behind all of this is Epicurean; it is the pleasure principle. Now, Epicurus was not as shallow to think that all pleasure should be consumed the way his American heirs do. He at least tried to achieve the greatest pleasure, which would include foregoing immediate pleasures. However, modern American consumers often skip this important aspect and focus solely upon the immediate pleasure. Indeed, American culture has inverted the proverb that something, “is funny because it is true,” to something being “true because it is funny.”
In opposition to this, I propose (with all of the great Christian thinkers before me, and some Pagan ones too) that one must selectively consume. Do I need to know everything that is happening in the world today? Do I need to fill my brain with various facts and figures only to impress my friends at diner parties? Do I need to remember various lines from movies and television shows? Do I need to have or experience every great piece of Classical music? Do I need to read a bunch of blogs on the interwebs and then link them on my own? I must note that all of these things are issues of consumption with which I struggle.
What must be done instead is to be picky about that which I put into my mind and my body, and I hope to start doing that. I have tried before, but failed. Maybe by focusing on the principle of selectivity, with a large does of prayer, things will go better.
I should add that the desire to consume information derives from the fear of being wrong or being bested by someone else in matters of theology, philosophy, or any other subject of life that I have invested myself into. I’m not afraid to be ignorant about cars, nursing, or cooking, etc. I have limited experience in all of these things. But about the things which I spend the most of my time studying, I want to always be right, to win every argument, and in general be the best. I would say that it is not wrong to want to excel in something, but it should never be at the expense of someone else. In essence, I seek to build myself up at the expense of others (i.e., as I push them down). This, it should be noted, is the real definition of pride (superbia) in the ancient world.