There is health—mental, physical, spiritual, all-encompassing—and there is what we like to call the infection. It appears wherever there’s human life, and it can spread rapidly. Worldwide, vast numbers of people carry the infection. See: theft, murder, terrorism, fear mongering, racism, jingoism, denial, belief in the divine right of those-who-have. The infection’s root cause nihilism, sociopathy or other a belief that we should have what we want regardless of impact on others, and a belief that we can never have enough.
Defining how much is enough and how much is excess has been difficult in the modern era. And who gets to decide? We aren’t speaking here of the world’s worst and most obvious of desperations, such as the billions on the verge of starvation (while others are upset if foie gras becomes unavailable). We’re talking about the addiction to “more,” and about its consequences. This was brought to mind by a piece in The Economist in July 2002, which describes consumerism and “the 1 Percent” as creating a hunger in the others, “an insatiable longing.
Pondering the phrase “insatiable longing,” we remembered a close-to-home example of the phenomenon some years ago, when one of our daughters brought a sensible, hard-working young woman to visit. Within a few days, she was splurging madly on boots she’d never have considered before, breathlessly describing the feeling of being amidst so much opulence in the endless display of must-have things set on the glittery streets of Beverly Hills. We think (hope) sanity returned when she went home…
Unfortunately, this infection isn’t heralded by skull and crossbones. It flies in on the gossamer wings of that which is to be had, which IS had by the world’s elite: personal planes, personal islands, personal armies and security squads, boutique medical care, multiple homes, seemingly unlimited wealth… The infection’s spread is fueled by the belief that having more makes you more—eligible for membership in the private club of “the special.”
How do we keep from catching the infection? It brings no lasting happiness. It leads to dissatisfaction, to feeling that we’re less. It fuels envy, rage, insecurity—nothing healthy. Rather, it encourages unhealthy behavior. It encourages inequality and feelings of superiority; it separates us. It tantalizes us into consuming not what’s necessary, not even what we can afford, but what we can put on credit because we MUST HAVE IT. The infection creates, sustains, and supports an insatiable longing that leaves any consideration of debt behind. And yet, no material possession can satisfy that longing more than very, very briefly.
Some suggestions for keeping perspective and avoiding the “infection” include, try to understand the hunger expressed as material longings. You already know in your gut that the fleeting satisfaction of consuming is indeed fleeting and no match for feeling love, belonging and acceptance. Never go out shopping when you are feeling unhappy or insecure. Instead, try exercise or calling a friend. It might also help to play the game of imagining that you are trying to create a longing, in others, to buy something. How would you pitch it? That might be the pitch that you are buying.
Then, imagine it’s six months later, when the thrill of consuming has worn off and you’re left with a credit card bill.
It might be helpful to spend ten minutes each day focused on something with no monetary price tag: something you have seen, heard, tasted, touched or remember.
Experience a simple pleasure: listen to music, take a walk and be conscious of your surroundings, talk with someone you care about, relish a healthy meal. Then, go inside yourself and make an inventory of what soothes you. Use it.
Most importantly, think about what is enough for you.
Oliver and Barbara