I was thinking today about how in the West, we’ve developed an extraordinary and incredible amount of labor saving technologies, yet, strangely, most of us in the West don’t actually use these technologies to save time or to create more opportunity to rest, be creative, or enjoy life. I’ve also read in recent years that hunter-gatherer societies often worked very little and had a good deal of time for family, local community life, creativity, rest, and leisure.
Being physically removed from the States and from industrial, consumeristic society, I tend to wonder a bit more about these things. I’m wondering what the point is of all of the incredible technological advances that save us so much time and energy – when the reality is that for most of us, we actually don’t have much by way of extra time and energy.
I think the first and perhaps most obvious answer is that these technologies ultimately benefit a select few, the wealthy classes of society. The majority of people keep working as hard as ever, seeing far more minimal benefits, while a small minority reap most of the profits. This is capitalism, though, and by and large people (in the U.S.) are okay with this situation; and it doesn’t completely answer the question, I don’t think, even though it is certainly a part of the answer.
People in the States could – like myself and others I know – live with a good deal less, live a more simple lifestyle. Maybe take a few less trips to the mall, pass on keeping up with this fall’s fashion, stay living in a smaller house, cancel the cable and wifi service, downgrade the cell phone plan, or run the car a few years longer (and if one were inclined to truly gain more time for one’s self, one could take the particularly radical step and sell the car altogether!). There are any number of ways to free up time in our society. As i think about it, there are even small bands of folks calling themselves “Freegans,” who live primarily (or exclusively) by what they can get for free, living off of the excesses of American society, the things that often get wasted.
But there is something in our culture that keeps us “buying shit we don’t need,” to borrow a quote from Fight Club. Framed in Christian spiritual terms, we might call it a certain “spirit.” The spirit of consumerism. The felt need to own more, to have more, to accumulate more, to increase our standard of living. For many, in fact, this is the sine qua non element of the American Dream, the “without which not,” the one indispensable element of what makes an American a true American. A very small minority of folks go even further, to condemn those who would question this “American spirit” as unAmerican or freeloading Communists.
The question to ask, however, is a basic one: How’s that workin’ out for ya’? Jesus asked the same question in a slightly different way: “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world yet lose his soul? What can a man give in exchange for his soul?” I quote from the King James (more or less) so that I can use the word “profiteth.” Not only is “profiteth” a great King James-ey word, but profit is also the essence of what keeps us going, it is the motivator for modern industrial society. And it’s never enough.
“What can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Well, these days, we can sell our souls and receive quite a bit in return. Frankly, we’ve never had a better exchange rate, in all of recorded human history. But are we truly happy? And is the spirit of consumerism really the driving engine that we want to continue to propel our culture forward? Because we have, as a culture, sought to gain the whole world at the expense of our soul, at the expense of family, community, the health of our bodies, and the health of our minds. What more “primitive” peoples were able to enjoy, we have sold.
It is communion rather than consumerism that brings lasting satisfaction and joy, personally, socially, and to the entirety of the world. For this reason, Jesus told a powerful, rich, and religiously zealous young man to “sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” He couldn’t do it, for all that the young man had going for him – wealth, power, and good works – Jesus said he “lacked” one thing. The thing he lacked was the fact that he couldn’t give up the things he owned. In fact, he didn’t own his things, his things owned him. What he lacked was freedom.
The hopeful thing about our situation is that it is, in a sense, relatively easy to get back to a better state of being, because being content and happy in a simple life, surrounded by a close knit web of familial and communal relationships, seems most basic to who we are as human beings. And this is not just a human thing, but the way the whole shabang seems to be oriented – the animal world, the trees, plants, insects, birds, oceans, and the whole nonhuman world, together with us. As far as I can tell, there seems to be an essential harmony or communion that happens when we cease from the spirit of consumerism and live simply.
Freedom is simple. It’s as simple as letting go.