Monday, June 14, 2004

I Want More

Please, sir, I want some more.

These words from young Oliver Twist resulted in shock and indignation from his masters. Surely, the only future for such a rebel was to eventually be hung.

Keep in mind that Oliver is the hero of this well-known story. Such rebellion in the face of abuse and oppression is one of the themes on which the USA has been built; the right to life, liberty and property (as originally stated by John Locke; the founding fathers considered it prudent to change "property" to "the pursuit of happiness"). We are a "great" nation because we have never been satisfied with what we have; we always want more.

No one understands this better than the advertising agencies. We never reach Nirvana; it is always one more purchase, one more vacation, one more relationship away. The problem is, the ad agencies themselves believe in the heroism of Oliver as much as we do. They are not content to simply provide for the needs of the consumer. They want more. So, they create new needs, and then set out to convince us that we have the right to pursue happiness; and our previous happiness was simply an illusion. We have a right to a giant 4WD SUV that holds 9 passengers, even though we are an urban family of 3.

This longing for more has served our culture well. As long as we continue to follow the carrot on the end of the stick, in this case, the carrot named "the American Dream," we will not make waves. We will keep that job we hate, because we have to make those mortgage payments. We will not protest injustice too loudly, as it might hinder our climb to our place in the sun. We will avoid risks, make conservative investments, and silently agree with the premise of social darwinism ( we deserve to make a profit from the misfortune of others, because we are better than them).

There are a few indicators that this kind of thinking may not be serving us as well as we thought it was, however. Along with “more stuff” comes some auxillary stuff; more stress, more worry, more anxiety, more health related problems. Is more always better?

There are a couple of other troublesome ideas connected with our longing for more. Sometimes our preoccupation with "getting and spending" seems not just driven by the programming of the psychological geniuses of our age, the ad agencies, but is also driven by fear. Fear that we might not have enough. The fear of scarcity. If we live our lives in fear of never having enough, we will spend our lives chasing the illusive "more."

If true happiness will be achieved when we finally buy that right house, or that right car, we are constantly living for some future event. Once we get the house, we'll realize that the reason we are not truly happy is because now have to have the right interior decorations. When that is done, we have to have the perfect landscaping. Then a pool. Then an addition...and so it goes. We are always one step away from Nirvana. And while we pursue "more," we miss this present moment. We are blind to the here and now.

If a good Buddhist encountered someone who felt Nirvana could be atained by amassing a few million dollars, the Buddhist would help them towards that goal in any way possible. Not because of a belief that this path would indeed lead to enlightenment; but because of the belief that the way to Nirvana often leads to numerous dead ends. Sometimes, when driven by deep seated beliefs, the only way some people will discover if those beliefs are based on truth or illusion is to follow the path to which they lead.

My experience is that suggesting that consumerism is based on premises that rob us of our freedom and endanger our health and peace of mind is not heard by many; especially the middle class. The poor place little hope in consumerism, as many of those dreams are beyond their reach. The wealthy have won the game, and found the prize less than satisfactory. They are open to alternative messages. But those who are still striving for the prize are usually polite, but dismissive; they know that in the real world, what really matters is who collects the most "stuff" before they die. Maybe they are right. And maybe I should not hinder their journey. Maybe I should even assist them along their way?

If someone has come to similar conclusions about "more is better" being an unhealthy message in our society, here's a few suggestions of how to de-program yourself;

1. Let go of the belief in scarcity. Realize there is more than enough. Recognize that the world "out there" is not some dangerous entity that is seeking to rob us and destroy us. Such thinking gives rise to a life driven by fear.

2. Stop seeing ourselves as victims. This is related to the above. We are not trapped by outside forces. We have choices. Stop blaming "them" for our misfortunes. Be responsible for ourselves. Refuse to play the blame game.

3. As we let go of our fear, we become more willing to risk making changes in our lives. We assess our need for creature comforts, full schedules, and career goals. As the old saying goes, "If nothing changes, nothing changes."

4. Simplify. To be here in this present moment doesn't happen all by itself. We have to make a space in our lives for it. That means we may have to let go of some of the baggage we carry around with us.

5. As we are less and less driven by our fears, and the walls come down, the term "community" takes on new meaning. We begin to see our connection to other people, and beyond that, all things. We begin to see that this life is indeed abundant; that not only do we have enough, we have more than enough. We become willing to share, not because the other has earned it, but simply because we can.

6. We recognize that the longing for "something more" remains, and has possibly become even stronger. It is as if there is something missing; something broken on the inside. Now that we've let go of the illusion that there is something "out there" that if we could just get it "in here," we'd be fixed, we realize that the scratch for this particular itch is not discovered in externals. Happiness is found in an interior place.

The nature of that place, and who or what we encounter there, is another discussion.


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

- William Wordsworth

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