Most Americans feel pressure to indulge in excessive consumption. Quite a few of us have given into consumerism’s coercion. Whether it be buying lots of luxury items to appear successful or buying lots of sale items to act thrifty or buying lots of anything to appease boredom, we almost all of us have shopped too much in response to the ever-present message of consumerism that tells us getting stuff will get us satisfaction.
Two extreme outcomes of this consumer impulse are popular in the media and in blog discussions right now. One extreme are hoarders. We’ve all seen the houses, filled so full that cats and rats can live and die undetected under the living room detritus. The other extreme are modern-day ascetics, living out of backpacks filled with only a few dozen possessions and a tattered yoga mat, roaming from friend’s couch to friend’s couch, occasionally showering.
My own feeling is that most of them are mentally unhealthy. Hoarding is actually a diagnosable disorder. Some ascetics might be an exception, though all the best ascetics throughout history were a bit mentally off. If you’re going to be an extreme ascetic, mental instability usually comes with the territory. My feelings on this matter might be wrong. But what we cannot deny is that most Americans will neither become hoarders nor ascetics.
Most Americans feel pressured to shop too much. Probably most Americans have given in and actually bought too much at some point in their lives. But most of us in this majority will never embrace consumerism to the point of being a hoarder imprisoned by stuff or reject consumerism to the point of being an ascetic unattached to everything. Most of us exist in a very broad middle ground of everyday consumerism.
It’s less amusing on television and offers less vitriol for blogs, but the real progress to be made against excessive consumption must happen in average suburban, urban, and country homes.
We like to watch and to talk about extremes from a safe distance somewhere in the middle of our workaday lives. The trouble is that this fascination with hoarders and ascetics turns the problem of consumption and the response to it into entertainment. We can laugh and grimace at others without feeling overly convicted about ourselves.
America needs “most people” (that hard-to-pinpoint demographic that includes, well, most of us) to reject excessive consumption and live moderately. We need to become convinced that the average American has more to contribute to the economy, her community, his nation than what she or he can buy at a store and store in the closet.
We need most of us to live simply so that we can accumulate the resources — our talents and wealth — to contribute generously.
The American dream is not about collecting more stuff in more nooks and crannies of our homes. It has been and always will be about passing on a better world to our families and our communities. The passing on has always been the responsibility of and the result of hard work by average folk. Replace “better world” with “more stuff” and replace “hard work” with “credit card,” and we’re going to end up in a mess. We’re pretty much there.
The United States has been in big messes before. We’ve come through them. Always the result of sacrifice and perseverance by average people. Our over consumption has created a mess, of our homes and the environment and the economy. What we don’t need are a few hoarders and ascetics to entertain us, showing us how we’re not that bad or that weird. What we need is to admit that we — us average folk — have a problem with consumption. And we need to remember that we — us average folk — are the solution. Sacrifice. Hard work. Better world.