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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Reconnecting with Society through Books

Books have always been my thing. I started reading the Harry Potter series in first grade and did not stop until a week after the Deathly Hallows release in 2007. In between books, I racked up hours devouring Sharon Creech novels and other fantasy series. This helped secure my annual victory in “Tons of Reading,” an elementary school class competition to determine the most avid reader.

By high school, I had read Fahrenheit 451 and was well into Gone with the Wind. But then life became busy and my pleasure reading was limited. Still, I managed to read classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World through my classes, and I savored every word.

But in my interactions with other readers I have noticed a glaring hole in my book repertoire. I have not read some of the most essential stories that seem to grace every must-read modern classics list. Against all odds, I have missed Kesey and Steinbeck and Vonnegut. I have not even read the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. When I fail to effortlessly quote and discuss these books–due to the fact that I have not read them–I feel inadequate as a self-proclaimed reader.

Imagine if a runner did not know about Steve Prefontaine or Joan Benoit Samuelson or Mary Decker Slaney. These people defined the sport of American middle distance and distance running. They paved the way for every distance runner that would follow. And they should be celebrated accordingly. Of course I know all about these runners because running is such a massive part of my life, but so is reading.

Alas, there is only one solution, and that is to read these books. So that is what I will do. I now present my list of Top 10 Books I Must Read Before I can Consider Myself a Fully Functioning Member of Society:

1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1972)

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

3. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (1964)

4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

5. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

9. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

As I compiled this list, I noticed an alarmingly common theme: all but one were published within a 20 year period between 1952 and 1972. This also happens to be the time period where I belong. My father recently said, “You are a flower child.” I am confident that these books will allow me to better understand my flower child roots and the era in which they began.

Surprise! I have already started my reading journey. In a recent week of strikingly sunny weather, I laid outside and read about war and time travel. That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut, I can now say “So it goes” without fear that my fraud will be detected. And I am well on my way to understanding Ken Kesey a little bit more through the eyes of Chief and McMurphy.

I will track the rest of my progress here and add a few thoughts as I finish the big ten. But for now, I will delve back into the Oregon insane asylum until I emerge one step closer to fully functioning personhood.