24 November 2011

The good life isn't ruled by money, part 1

The problem isn't with money, the problem is with you.

Money is like all other things, it is used by people for whatever purpose they so desire.  Money in its own right is just a measure of scarcity and value.  We, being what we are, are prone to letting meanings of disparate things overlap.  We confuse expensive things with things of value, and we confuse the value of our objects with how valuable our lives are. We see the rich man as being worthy or respect, and the poor man as being worthy of contempt.  We see material success as the logical outcome of living a valuable life, leaving us to believe that those who have become wealthy are deserving of accolades while those who have failed to do so should be quietly avoided.

We have at our disposal a huge number of tricks and mirrors and creams and talismans and books of ancient repute that we can use to have us believe that we are a step above others, or to explain why others who seem to be a step above us aren't actually deserving. We can consume friendships on Facebook, trying to amass as many "friends" as possible, in just the same way that someone can amass so much junk in their house that they're put onto show as a freak show for us to consume. Consumerism is just another misguided attempt to define and aggrandize ourselves.

You are you.

You aren't:
Your nationality
A representative of your religion
An income quintile
A way of dressing
A type of music
A multitude of other meaningless categorizations

There's a pretty easy road to take when it comes to living your life, and that is letting it be defined by others.  You can take everything that they see of you and transform yourself into that without even really putting any thought into it.There are even easier ways of defining yourself.  You can be an American, or a Canadian, or a Lutheran, or a militant secular atheist.

These aren't you just as much as other's objectifications of you aren't you. There is, though, at least a little bit of thought involved in declaring that the you that is you is really just an American or a Canadian or a Lutheran or a militant secular atheist.  You might attach some values to those group identifications, even if the chances are that you will really just take the label and turn into anything that you really want to.  So, we throw group identification out the window along with external validation, neither can really help you to figure out who you are.  This is even more true when we compare it against the type of self-definition that comes along with consumerism.

The media that you consume and your brand identification and your support of a particular football team can't really serve as the basis of a good life.  The good life requires self knowledge, and self knowledge requires that you have at least a rudimentary amount of knowledge of what you are when all of those externalities are stripped away.

No one is asking you to put on a hair shirt.  There's no need to join a commune or to give up all of your worldly possessions.  The idea of living a lifestyle that isn't based on the things that you consume has gone so far out of mainstream thought and practice in modern Western society that it seems to only have crazy alternatives, but alternatives there are.

It is here that we start to reach for some paths to follow.  The blind pursuit of wealth is nothing new in human life, the only difference is that now there are many more of us pursuing much more wealth.  We have always been avid voyeurs of others' wealth, but now we have the opportunity to peek into the world of those far more wealthy than us on a regular basis - we don't have to be content with seeing some nobleman ride through our village once in a lifetime.  So the paths are there.  They have been developed in all of the world religions, in all of the major philosophies, and in innumerable ways in all of our cultures.  The relative decline of all of these systems of thought has, no coincidence here, came along at the same time as the growing amount and omnipresence of wealth, making it even more important for us to look back and see how we can try to struggle against Mammon itself.

We'll walk down some of those paths in the coming posts...

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