your stuff or your life

Years ago, on a weekend visit, I spoke to a friend of mine from a Middle Eastern country while our family was visiting with his family. We spoke over a huge pile of Legos and the Bert-n-Ernie Garage and a full set of Thomas the Tank Engine trains (although, in all fairness, most were gifts).  He was reminiscing about how he grew up with practically no toys:  he and his brothers made toys out of wire and twine and cans and sticks.  I spoke about my childhood – less simple, but still free for the most part of electronic gadgets.  We watched a Euro 2008 match on satellite TV while we spoke, drank German beer and checked other sports score on my high-speed Internet laptop.  Then my friend lamented the fact that while his mother had managed to support his whole family and grandparents on one salary, it just wasn’t possible anymore.

It is. Take out the imported beer, the satellite TV, the piles of children’s toys, the second car, the computers, the high-speed internet, and so on and it is.  It’s amazing how within the span of one generation we’ve added so many “extras” – but at the same time Americans are now working harder than any other industrialized nation, even more than the infamously hard-working Japanese.  I may exempt the Internet from this equation, simply because what I pay for access – a $600 Toshiba laptop and a high-speed cable connection – are worth it in terms of information and learning and entertainment.  Other than that, though, we have added so much to our lives that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we don’t need most of it.

Yet at the same time America is unbearably wealthy by global standards. We have calories (not good ones, but calories nonetheless) available in almost unlimited supply for almost no real cost – Americans spend less of their salary on food than any other nation in the world.  You can buy enough Cinnamon Toast Crunch to feed a family of four for a day for $10.  Even the poorest people in America can afford television; and despite the recent increase in gas prices, we still have some of the cheapest gas in the world and almost no-one is too poor to afford a car.

I don’t automatically assume that “having things” makes anyone unhappy, any more than I assume having things DOES make someone happy. Americans are uniquely blessed with a regulatory environment that is still wide-open by global standards, and the remnants of an entrepreneurial spirit that lives on despite 50 years of creep in governmental control.  Yet at the same time a gap has opened up that shows that the materialistic society has limits.  I have made no statistical studies, but I have so many acquaintances who are loaded down with material goods who are desperately unhappy and apprehensive about the future that it seems to be a trend.  I’m not exaggerating, either – these people have possessions that would have convinced me, in my youth, that they were multimillionaires.  So progress has been made in the material world, but something – somewhere – was lost.

I don’t know what the answer is, because the Internet and cable/satellite TV and clever toys and gadgets like MP3 players have not seemed (and that’s the key word) to be EVIL. I enjoy my Blackberry, a lot.  Could I live without it?  Of course.  Does it enrich my life?  It sure did yesterday, when I listened to a fascinating interview on it, showed my kids a music video they loved and found an address I needed.  But is it part of a slow trickle of gadgets-for-money-for-time that have robbed me of the deliberate life?  That’s something each of us, in the wee hours, have to decide for ourselves.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik