Living for Moments in a Materialistic World

I’ve always hated money. I hate thinking about it, I hate talking about it, and I especially hate that it’s the driving force behind our entire society. My professor recently put a quote from Fredric Jameson on the board: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Even with climate change threatening to actually end the world, it is apparent that capitalism is not going anywhere, so it’s pretty useless to try to change it completely. Besides, capitalism is by no means the worst thing in the world. My biggest problem with it comes from the consumerism and materialism that have ballooned alongside it.

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I sat in the cafe positioned in the basement of our school library. After a weekend of both literal and mental fog cultivated by layers of clouds and hours of school work, I was already in a mindset far removed from my usual optimistic self. Coupled with that, I had for the first time actually considered the cost of college, and the brutal reality of it was upsetting at best. If even in-state tuition with scholarship assistance would be unaffordable for the average person, I could hardly imagine how people managed to pay for private or out-of-state institutions. The amount that tuition has increased since my parents went to college 40 years ago is jarring.

With that in mind, when I sat in the cafe thinking about money and how the college I attended could inhibit someone’s freedom for years after graduation, I was already spiraling into cynicism. So, when I glanced up and saw two refrigerators stocked full of plastic bottled water and soda, I almost gave up. Not only did those refrigerators house ridiculous amounts of environmentally treacherous plastic, but everything inside of the plastic was unnecessary. Oregon has some of the best tap water in the world, and there was a drinking fountain located twenty feet from the refrigerator, yet in five minutes I still saw a handful of people purchase bottled water. The frivolity of soda speaks for itself–it has zero benefits for health or the planet. It’s fortunate that I was positioned where I could not see all the other pounds of packaged food that surrounded the refrigerators; otherwise, I might have made a scene.

Let's take a break and look at this beautiful Oregon scene.

Let’s take a break and look at this beautiful Oregon scene instead.

Of course, I am not immune to this culture of convenience. Sometimes I decide to sleep for twenty extra minutes instead of packing food for the day, and then I end up buying overpriced items that contribute to the world’s useless waste with their packaging. This term, I have become increasingly intrigued by coffee, and for awhile this meant the accumulation of very wasteful, very not reusable paper cups. Even though I now only buy coffee if I have my reusable mug, I’m still wasting money in the mere act of buying the coffee instead of making my own. Because I am a consumer and I decide that a short-lived burst of caffeine is more important than saving the equivalent of 30 minutes of work. The more I take stock of the waste I accumulate daily, the more I realize that it represents exactly what its name suggests: wasted time, wasted money, and, eventually, wasted life.

This is where my issues with consumerism take root. Somewhere along the line, we decide that the act of living is in itself not enough. We lose the magic of the intangible and look for satisfaction in things we can touch, things we can own. We find jobs that pay us just enough money to fund our need for the things advertisements promise will make us happier–clothes, makeup, technology, fancy drinks. We become enamored with brands that we believe represent our best selves and use these purchases to show everyone that because we drink Dutch Bros. and because we wear Nike, we are automatically trendy and fit in with the molds of society.

We claim that we really do love these material things, that even though they are more expensive and lower quality than their small business counterparts, they are still the best. The brand name means everything and if we fail to purchase the newest version or variation, then we fail to maintain our carefully crafted identity. Because somehow, material things have become so important to our lives that they define us. Instead of living for experiences, we live for things.

Though as a rule I hate shopping for clothes, I have experienced retail therapy exactly twice in my life: once the day after a breakup, and another time two weeks after my best friend left for an 18-month long mission. While I limited my shopping to second hand stores, I still felt the soothing promise of new (to me) material goods to heal my fractured self. And it totally worked, but only on a surface level. I felt better after these endeavors, but in both instances it took weeks more of immersion into books and creative outlets to actually feel whole again. I was accustomed to sharing much of my life with these people, and despite the media’s tendency to suggest otherwise, things are no replacement for real human relationships.

As I become increasingly aware of the influence consumerism has on myself and those around me, I realize that I have a choice: I could turn to cynicism that would likely regress into apathy, or I could live my life in a way that rejects it. For the sake of my remaining optimism and basic enjoyment of non-conformity, I intend to adopt the latter approach.

This is the magic of the scene outside Cougar Hot Springs.

This is the magic of the scene outside Cougar Hot Springs.

So, a few weekends ago, I found myself in a place directly oppositional to all things consumerism: Cougar Hot Springs. Because when you sit naked in a pool of naturally heated water in the middle of the Oregon forest surrounded by a dozen other naked strangers, you are completely removed from the material things that normally represent to others who you are. The only branding that can possibly define you is anything you might have tattooed on your body, and I really hope that people don’t get actual brands etched into their skin. Being naked with strangers forces you to take full stock of who you are and what actually matters to you, and when you can see yourself free of the chains of society, then you are actually free to live.

I’m not advocating for a nudist society, but I do think that being naked, whether metaphorically or literally, is the biggest departure we can take from consumer culture. In this state, not only can we express ourselves with our ideas and personalities and values, but people will see us as a product of these abstract things rather than as a product of our possessions. Unconcealed, we become the most authentic and beautiful versions of ourselves that we can possibly be. And amid that authenticity comes a liberation from the false comfort of things and a gateway into a life marked by moments, not materials.

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The Only Thing to Fear is the Onion Itself

A little over a week ago, on a typical Thursday evening, I found myself at Urgent Care with three paper towels wrapped around my right index finger, blood already through the first two and threatening to soak through the third. 30 minutes earlier, I had been asleep in my bed, blissfully unaware of the traumatic events about to take place.

Like any misfortune, the blame for my bleeding finger can easily be traced back to the world’s worst vegetable: onions. As much as I despise this smelly food, I have found it impossible to avoid when following the recipes of people who know far more about cooking than I do. So, when I began the process that promised delicious Chana Masala, I had to chop up the food equivalent of the devil.

Surprisingly, it was not the brand new, sharp paring knife that sliced my finger open. Rather, it was the broken glass that, for the past four months, had sat benignly next to the soap on our kitchen sink (the fact that it was there for four months does not make the onion innocent). You see, when I went to wash all traces of the onion from my fingers, lest its juices corrupt my skin, my hand decided to miss the soap and land instead on that unassuming broken glass. The glass happened to have a distinctly triangular edge that my finger happened to land on almost perfectly. The blood started gushing immediately and once I convinced my roommates that my finger actually was in peril that necessitated medical attention, I rushed off to Urgent Care, where they healed me with three bright blue stitches.

Don't think about onions or my bleeding finger. Think about this nice view from my run.

Don’t think about onions or my bleeding finger. Think about this nice view from my run. There you go.

What struck me from this experience was not the image of blood flowing from a deep cut into my kitchen sink while my roommates advised me to simply put some pressure on it, nor was it the two hours I spent at Urgent Care mostly waiting for any treatment other than the recording of my blood pressure. No, the thing that I find most intriguing was the complete absence of pain when the actual finger-puncturing took place. I have cut my fingers countless times before, but never this deep, so I would expect it to hurt quite a bit. But when it happened, I felt nothing, not even the pressure of the glass.

I don’t know enough about the human brain or the nervous system to even attempt to explain the biological processes behind this phenomenon, but I do think that fear (or in this case, the lack thereof) has something to do with it. My new favorite podcast, Invisibilia, just devoted an entire hour to the relationship between humans and fear, and their basic hypothesis is that while we all experience fear, we all also have the ability to overcome it. No one, except someone with a completely calcified amygdala, is fearless, but we need not let fear interfere with our lives.

To return to the case of my painless finger stab, I think that the reason it did not hurt is because there was no part of my brain that anticipated this as a possibility. Had my eyes noticed the broken glass next to the soap and noted the inherent risk, my brain might have prepped my nerves for the possible incision. Had I feared the glass, my bleeding finger would be an actualization of those fears rather than an incalculable accident, and I think it would have hurt.

Following this logic, it seems to me that when our fears become reality, it is painful not because of the thing we fear itself, but because of the thoughts and beliefs that surround it from our own manifestations. A lot of people are afraid of spiders. Spiders are almost always harmless, and even their physical presence on our skin is in itself not an uncomfortable thing–a virtually weightless creature will not disrupt any of our activities. The fear that accompanies them comes in when people spend so much time associating spiders with creepiness or venom or bites before they even interact with them. Then, when the spider itself becomes physically relevant, these people automatically revert to the mindset of fear they have grown to associate with spiders.

Another common fear–and one that Invisibilia discusses in detail–is the fear of rejection. Whether this is in dating, job-searching, or creative work, virtually everyone can relate to the fear that we might not be good enough or we might not be wanted. This often leads to inaction. Last weekend, I found myself stuck in a state of being where I felt inadequate and powerless. I had a lot of hopes and plans and dreams, like I always do, but I was not willing to take the necessary steps to get there because I feared failure, which is really just rejection from my ideal self. Eventually, I just started doing things, anything that would get me closer to where I wanted to be. I filled out forms and made appointments and went to bed on time, and soon my fears became fleeting thoughts that rarely entered my mind.

When I took steps to directly reject my fears, I cultivated a mindset that is in a lot of ways more rational, but also one equally open to all possibilities, not just the best ones. And this is a pretty empowering place to be. If I had feared that broken glass, or even the innate evilness of the onion, then I would have felt every inch of that edge pierce my skin. Or I might not have chopped anything in the first place because I anticipated the consequences. But since I sliced that onion and attempted to wash my hands fearlessly, I received only a painless wound and a scar that tells the story of how I learned to ignore fear in the pursuit of excellent things. Nonetheless, I still hate onions.

Hope Still Exists When All Else Fails

The world has been pretty terrible lately. You don’t have to look far in the headlines to find tragedy. The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown–among many others–show us that racism is still blatant 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. The Taliban just killed over 140 innocent people in a Pakistani school. There is no time or place where murder at a school could ever be acceptable, and the United States is far from immune to this. Two years ago this week, a man opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut. I don’t think I will ever come to terms with that event.

There is so much suffering and poverty and inequality and injustice in the world and I don’t know how to stop it. Every day, so many horrific things happen and I am so acutely aware of them, yet I have the audacity to continue living in my blissful daily existence. I keep trying to put into words the magnitude of these events and how much they matter, but words will not reverse the consequences that already took place. I don’t know if I can adequately express the weight of these injustices, and I don’t think my attempts to dwell on these tragedies will solve anything. Because somehow, amidst all this grief, I still have hope. I still believe above all else that the world is not doomed and that humanity can and will make life more bearable. I’m sure that many educated people would call this hope misguided or unreliable, but it’s the only thing I have.

Perhaps my ridiculously comfortable existence enables me to have this hope. This is all because I’m so lucky. Lucky I was born white. Lucky I can afford a college education. Lucky my family is stable and alive. Lucky I can type coherent thoughts. I’m so aware of my privilege, yet so oblivious to the implications. I will never know what it feels like to walk on a street with the constant worry that a police officer might mistake me for a criminal and kill me. I will never know what it feels like to live in a country where bombs and air raids could rain down at any time. I will never know what it feels like to grow up in an impoverished family in a dangerous area.

Maybe I should feel guilty about this. I don’t, but I’m aware of it and uncertain about my lack of guilt and where it leaves me. If I am happy with all these privileges I have both received and earned, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Should I just feel sorry for the Pakistanis who are affected by the Taliban’s cruelty, or am I obligated through my privilege to do something about it? And how the hell do I do something about it? Right now it seems that my only option is to be a voice. I’m so conflicted and confused about my place in the scheme of this cruel world, but the conversation has to start somewhere.

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When tragedies happen, I never know how to respond. There is nothing I can say or do that would make them less painful, and sometimes the only thing I can offer is my own sympathy. Ultimately, that does not help anyone but myself. Still, I believe that world peace is possible, and I think that a more peaceful world is likely. Coming from a human perspective, not a religious one, I must ground my hope in a faith that humanity is capable of more good than evil. That someday, we can all be at least a little more equal and a little less cruel.

I have so much I want to know and understand and think and say and feel but I don’t know where to start and I’m not convinced that I know where I’m headed at all. Maybe personal happiness is the answer. Maybe it’s love. Stephen Hawking seems to think so. The movie The Theory of Everything is less about Hawking’s scientific achievements and more about his relationships with people. If one of the most brilliant people alive recognizes the impact and influence of human relationships, perhaps we should follow his lead.

Maybe all this world needs is a little more compassion and recognition of everyone’s own humanity. If we can look into another person’s eyes and realize that behind those eyes lies a lifetime of dreams and fears and experiences, then we can begin to understand that in the end, we are all connected because we have lived. Maybe then we wouldn’t be so quick to kill.