Random Ramblings on Consumerism, Envy, and Greed

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot against “corporate America” and consumerism and the whole mindset behind those things… I want to add my two cents but to be honest I’m not completely sure what my two cents would be… I’m not sure my thoughts are really very coherent on the issue, so I’m just going to throughout some random thoughts in no particular order:

-          First, can I just say that from a philosophical/ideological position I really don’t like consumerism and/or corporate America and the attitudes that they create, but from an economic standpoint I can’t really see that anything else would work. Consumerism works because it feeds and is driven on a basic human instinct – self-centeredness and the desire to possess (greed) and control. Other systems don’t work because they go against basic human instinct and that makes them unsustainable. So, I understand that consumerism works, and why, but I don’t like it. Last night we were talking at Craig and Sarah’s about the law that God gave to Moses and someone pointed out how it is interesting that the system God set up for the Israelites didn’t outlaw private property (or consumerism, really) instead it protected it, but it added to it various provisions, various checks and balances you could say that would protect those who needed protecting (indentured servants, the poor, the widows, and orphans, etc). I thought that was interesting. I find it interesting that God often seems to recognize our humanity and our human instincts and desires – he knows that we are broken and that we are going to be greedy and grasping and controlling so in the system he sets up it seems like he provides room for that but also a boundary to how greedy and grasping and controlling we can be. I find that interesting.

-          So, I was really surprised at something that happened in me when we are back in the states this time. Ok, so there are always things that I want, but generally (and in the past year especially) I have been fairly content with the material possessions (or lack thereof) in my life. I have had a roof over my head, cloths to wear and food to eat. I think in the last year the only things I really bought where actually necessary purchases. I didn’t buy clothes for myself the whole year, I didn’t buy jewelry or makeup or anything like that. In fact I didn’t even buy books much – I think I bought myself 2 or 3 books all year and that was it and it was fine. I didn’t buy a lot but it never really felt like a sacrifice, I knew what we needed and what we didn’t and I knew what we had money for and what we didn’t and it was fine. But, really from almost the day we got back in the states I found myself constantly wanting things – really wanting things. It started with a purse. I had used the same purse for about a year and it had stains all over it and being in New York I started to notice everyone else’s nice purses and wanted a purse. Soon I bought a purse – I justified it to myself by telling myself it was on sale and it was just fine for me to have 2 purses. But, really the next thing I knew my list of things that I wanted, the had-to-have-kind-of-wanted, was miles long – it included new cloths, new shoes, new books (oh, the books…), a new camera lens, a flash for my camera, a camera case, an extra battery for my camera, expensive specialty food items that I couldn’t get in Prague, etc, etc, etc. I found myself buying things that I knew I didn’t need and I knew that we didn’t have the money for, but I did it anyway, all the while justifying and rationalizing (I’m good at those two) everything. I think that some of it was the fact that I knew I couldn’t get some of this stuff back in Prague so there was this desperation to possess while I could while I could. And I think some of it had to do with the fact that I was fairly depressed most of the time we were back in the states and so getting new things to take back to Prague with us or dreaming about getting new things was sort of like a shot of adrenaline. But, I think this change in my attitude also had to do with the environment we were in. Here in Prague we don’t go shopping much so I don’t really see what I don’t have and so I don’t really want it. The people we are with the most here are fairly down-to-earth type people and we often talk about things we can do to help others (when the focus shifts to helping other people who often literally have nothing it’s hard to continue to focus on yourself and your desires). We don’t watch tv here in Prague either so we aren’t bombarded by advertising. I guess it was just really eye opening for me – I never really thought that I was that influenced by advertizing or my environment until this trip when I noticed that my attitude changing so much from being satisfied to being envious and greedy – especially in places like New York, and California and Scottsdale (interesting enough Scottsdale was probably the worst of all those places for me). I didn’t like the attitude I had there of wanting and grasping, but I’ve found that it’s been a hard attitude to shake once put on. I’ve come home and found all sorts of things that I now want for our place here that I never thought I really needed before. Anyway, it was eye opening.

-          Ok, so here’s another thought I had (and I think I’ll close with this one even though there are many more rambling thoughts on the topic in my head)… So, last night we were talking about envy, and lust, and greed, and that deep human desire to have and possess more and more. Which lead us to talk about consumerism a little and about how this desire to have drives people to do different things, many of which are bad. We were talking about how these desires (envy, greed, etc) were sin and lead to sin but then someone made the point that sometimes this desire can even lead people to do good things or create good things and advance society so they were saying we can’t just totally get rid of these desires because then what would drive society forward. I’m sure there are many things you can say in response to this (and many things were said) but I was thinking what if it wasn’t so much that we got rid of these destructive desires within us as it was that we REPLACED them with another desire – the desire to help others, to envy (is that the right word) after their needs instead of our own – what if instead of constantly seeking things for ourselves we were constantly seeking things for others. What if instead of saying “I really want this/need this” we started saying “Oh, I know that so-and-so would really want this/need this”. What if instead of envying after a better life for ourselves we envied after a better life for our neighbor, or the widowed, or orphaned, or homeless. What if we morphed that natural human desire to possess and have into a desire for the other to possess and have? Yes, it’s sort of counter intuitive and goes against some of our natural instinct – but it’s that sort of the system that Jesus set up when he gave us the command to Love God and LOVE PEOPLE? Isn’t that sort of what the early church looked like when “there were no needy persons among them” and “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own”? …. I don’t know… those were just some of my thoughts.


Rejoicing in the journey - Beth Stedman

Photograph by Beth Stedman