I’m sitting at a small desk I bought from a coworker in 1978. Some years earlier, she had purchased it second-hand, too. It’s a rather nondescript vintage piece of furniture designed in the so-called “waterfall” style. It is a very simple desk. There are no design gimmicks. Its pleasing wooden top curves towards the front. The seven small drawers do not have pulls or knobs, only slots at the bottoms to allow for their use.
In 1980, I decided to strip off the layers of chipped, worn paint that made the little desk look quite shabby. The desk became my first ever attempt at furniture refinishing. It turned out that there were five coats of paint of various colors plus the original varnished finish to remove. I went through two pints of chemical gel paint remover solution to get all the paint off. After sanding the wood and carefully preparing it, I stained it then applied several coats of tung oil finish.
The old desk still looks reasonably good after all the years of use. It now needs a few very minor repairs and touch ups here and there, but I still want to keep it. My attitude towards this desk is at odds with the current, industry-preferred philosophy of planned obsolesence.
Here in the West, we’ve willingly accepted the temporary nature of our belongings. Many of us are aware of the annual unveiling of the new car models. The new cars might feature a new tail light, grill, and trim. Perhaps a different type of seating, interior style, or electronic gadget might be the feature. Aside from sundry safety and performance improvements, we know that the new cars are the same as the old cars. A metal body powered by an engine to comfortably and quickly transport us from point A to point B. Automobiles have become the synonyms for planned obsolesence.
Through the years, we have allowed ourselves to be defined, not as human beings or citizens, but as consumers. Words are powerful things. When we use words as labels, they become even more powerful. If you remind yourself that you’re a fine, upstanding Italian or perhaps a true-blue American, you feel a swelling up of euphoria and other positive emotions. You’re not just a mere human, you’re an awsome Italian or a dyed in the wool American. On a more subtle, more insidious level, we have allowed ourselves to accept the label “consumer”.
What do consumers do? Consumers consume. Consumers buy stuff. Good, patriotic consumers buy lots of stuff. In today’s economic climate, consumers tell ourselves that we buy stuff in order to stimulate the economy. Good consumers buy the latest motor vehicle. Consumers use the latest smart phone. Consumers have the latest gadgets. Consumers soon tire of the new stuff and desire to acquire newer versions of the new stuff.
Many of us realize that these programmed cravings do not make us happy for very long. We feel frustrated when the next door neighbor gets a new vehicle that is slightly newer and fancier than our own. We feel an emotional itch when a friend shows off her new laptop computer. We feel the rivalry when a sibling buys that new house in the countryside.
On an instinctive level, we understand that our frustrating relationship with stuff needs to be fixed. Some of us react against consumerism. There is the pride in owning second hand furniture, a dislike of designer label clothing and accessories, or a rejection of other consumer goods. We might see material stuff through puritanical lenses as a corruption of human life and a diversion from the spiritual life. Count me guilty of this second point of view. Some of us cycle back and forth between consumerism and anti-consumerism. Eventually, we may wonder if there is a middle way.
In a macro sense, there is also a debate and conflict between our consumer-based economy and the viability of the Earth’s ecosystem. We find ourselves at war with Mother Nature. Guess who will win this conflict? We can deny that there is a problem, or we can own up to our part in it. Must we surrender to more hedonistic consumption of stuff, or submit to a puritanical denial? Is it time for a “diet” to cut out the luxuries of life? When we reject materialism, outright, don’t we feel deprived? Must we all become monks and join a monastery? We know that diets are doomed to failure. We understand that deprivation goes against our nature. Only a small percentage of humanity cares to explore their inner nature by living as nuns and monks.
I’ve noticed that people are beginning to find a way out of the conflict between consumerism and anti-consumerism. More frequently, I notice the message of appreciation. The new meme asks us to appreciate what we already have. There is no need to surrender to greed nor struggle to give away everything we own. We’re being told that all we need to do is adopt an “attitude of gratitude”.
At one time in my young life, I had adopted the puritanical view of material things. I certainly wasn’t a hippie, but I liked their communal attitude towards life and stuff. Their rejection of “the establishment” appealed to me. I was involuntarily subjected to a sparse lifestyle during the 1970s so I strongly rejected the puritanical view.
I swerved into the path of consumerism after settling into my career. I regularly updated my wardrobe; bought and kept up with the latest stereo gear; and ordered a new car from the factory. It didn’t take very long to understand that this path failed to provide satisfaction and lasting happiness. I eventually managed to scale back the consumption level but still maintained a consumer mentality.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I developed a more mellow attitude. The free spirit, communal attitude inched its way back into my mind. This time, the attitude was balanced with the realization that stuff doesn’t make us happy.
I like stuff. I like nice things, and that’s OK. I don’t purchase expensive, nice things because I cannot afford them. I buy other people’s cast-away nice things. On an elementary level, my peers and acquaintances don’t care what I own nor where I may have purchased it. Nobody gives a hoot if I acquired the gorgeous crystal vase from Macy’s or Goodwill. My lover says my little house resembles a curio shop more than a home. That’s fine. I like to enjoy my eclectic collection of stuff.
I have a small collection of teddy bears and bear figurines. They are a beautiful reminder of my happy boyhood enjoyment of toys. It is the same happy urge that keeps me feeling young and fresh. Certainly, I’m a mature, grown man. I accept that there is still a little boy inside my mind. If I let that boy die, I will deeply miss him. I allow a little bit of innocent, childish materialism to color my world with sights, textures, and sounds. I think this is a healthy, balanced view of materialism.
Likewise, I learned not to skimp on necessities. If you buy cheap shoes, you will probably harm your feet. I don’t need to have a collection of shoes. A few pairs of quality, reasonably priced shoes are a wise investment to make for overall foot and bodily health.
14 years ago, I decided to replace the car I owned. I wasn’t being nickle and dimed. It was more like hundreds of dollars each time it broke down. I studied the automobile reviews and mechanical specifications of various cars. When I made up my mind about what I wanted and needed, I drove out of town to purchase a “gently used” Japanese sedan.
The next day, I surrendered my VW Synchro’s keys to the car dealer and drove back home in a 1999 Toyota Camry CE. It’s exactly what I wanted, a no nonsense base model car with a minimum of gimicks. It has a small engine and manual five-speed transmission. The car will soon mark 100,000 miles. I hope it lasts another several thousand miles, because I really enjoy it.
I’ve determined that our problem with material possessions isn’t that we value our belongings too much, but that we don’t value and appreciate them nearly as much as we should. This is probably the main reason we find it so easy to “upgrade” our phones so frequently. It’s certainly why we trade in our motor vehicles long before they’re worn out.
There is a new, informal movement composed of activists, artists, environmentalists, philosophers, scientists, and concerned citizens gaining momentum. The challenge is to value and appreciate our belongings enough to deeply care about how they were made, where they came from, who constructed them, and what will happen to them in the future.
This thinking is less about what we oppose: fossil fuel extraction, global climate change, and rampant consumerism. It’s more about what we favor: a healthy relationship with our fellow living beings, respect for other people, regard for animals, plants, and resources, and a balanced approach to surviving and living within this delicately balanced ecosystem.
Many of us came to this realization through the help of our spiritual or wisdom traditions. Daily meditation and mindfulness practice has been shown to be the most helpful in this regard.
For instance, when I slide behind the wheel of the car, I briefly visualize the factory where it was built. I can “see” the people and robots who assembled it. I picture myself driving it carefully and safely in order to protect it and me from harm. When I return from a journey, I gently pat the dashboard or squeeze the steering wheel and thank the car for safely bringing me to and from my destination. The next time you drive your vehicle or bicycle, try the simple gratitude mental exercise. You will be amazed at how differently you feel about your mode of transportation.
If we buy our stuff with the intent to keep it a long time and mindfully appreciate what we already own, our attitudes towards stuff, other people, living things, and the planet will improve greatly.
The Blue Jay of Happiness is really thankful for the people who constructed the writer’s desk, for its prior owners, and the people who made the refinishing materials. Hopefully people in the future will also enjoy the desk.