Sunday, March 18, 2018

On Materialism

"Any kind of material form whatever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all material form should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”"

--Gautama Buddha


I'm a materialistic person by nature. I love things. I get a high off of buying things. I have a bad concept of money. Years and years of my life have been spent working to identify this as a problem, and working to correct some behaviors in myself that are undesirable at least, and toxic at worst. I've sought outlets to pull me away from this in the past, and I've always gotten pulled back in. Sometimes through the very skills I'm hoping to learn. Materialism becomes the excuse, and it detracts from the experience.

I think this is an important thing to tackle at this point in my life for a couple of reasons. I'm somebody's dad (soon to be two somebodies) and I'm also a person who wants to savor experience. Its pretty hipster to talk about "pure experience" but I think the term is apt here. Materialism oft pulls me out of an experience. I'll end up thinking about how easy a task would be if I had another tool, device, or something. Very often that makes the task take longer.

Oddly, running is a thing where I do this a little less.

I'm not obsessed with shoes, I tend to keep my gear in service way longer than I should (running until there are holes in it) and I love the experience of the sport because that's where all the stories come from. The things people ask me about running are almost never about the t-shirts or the medals. They ask about the course, the weather, the course support. It is a thing where the memory of the experience is the thing that I savor. The experience adds to how I see myself, and in a very positive way. These experiences are uniquely mine, they help me identify and handle further challenges in life, and I love being able to apply what I've learned elsewhere.

This is a thing that's helped me in the other things I've studied. I was a music student through college. I always felt if I could buy another book it would have the answer, if I could get another piece of equipment it would help me with my playing challenges. That was a disaster. I never improved at the rate I expected, and I could never satisfy my instructors demands of me, even when I was practicing eight hours a day. There was no reason to do any of that. If I could go back, I'd encourage a younger me to slow down, have patience, and internalize no criticism. Knowledge and skill are built from experience, and criticism can serve only to discourage those things. Savor the experience, and benefit from it in time.

Live and learn, I suppose.

I'm older, but I still realize that the arc of my life has many more days ahead than behind. I am making progress slowly towards the goals I want, and I know better that pushing harder doesn't always yield better results.

After college, really disenchanted with music, I wanted to take up a hobby that let me work with my hands, preoccupied my mind, and would give me a skill. I started researching and learning how to make bread. Some of the things came really easy, some of the things were harder. Just like with music it was a multi-faceted skill that required attention to many different parts of the process. I was really in the mindset that if I had the right board, bread stone, tools, then I'd be able to make a better product. I've consistently made bread three or four times a year for about ten years now. I'm only now at a place where I make a product I love consistently, and we don't buy bread at the market anymore because it is good enough to replace that.

That's crazy. But again, lesson learned. Bread is like music. And so is running.

I also cook often. I make the food in our house, and I love that. Cooking, like running, or bread crafting, is very much like meditation. I have to stay in the moment, focused on the experience, and then adjusting as I go. I have a pretty standard set of things in my kitchen, but I have very little desire to get more specific gadgets. My kitchen is tiny, and I don't have space to store things anyway. I hand cut my spaghetti with a pizza cutter, I season and maintain my cast iron skillet as a daily ritual. I wake early, make coffee, and prepare a breakfast that typically consists of a roast sweet potato with guacamole and two poached eggs. No fancy egg poachers, just the boiling water in a pot.

These skills and disciplines are areas of my life I'm very proud of. I gift food to those I love, and my close friends. I play music as a part of my job, but also with those I care about. I run for myself, but I've also paced friends. When I think about these areas of my personality, I don't focus on the material things that make it possible. Surely they do and I'm grateful for them, but the skill and practice, the craft and experience is the greater thing I savor.


"Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul."  

--Henry David Thoreau


Back in December 2017 I read an article in the New York Times, "My Year of No Shopping" by Ann Patchett. It got me thinking about whether or not I could do something like that, and it made me think of it almost as a mental game (the way we handle marathons.) I talked to my wife about it quite a bit, and set up some parameters. Basically, my goal boils down to this:

I'm not buying frivolous things this year. I'm sticking only to the necessities.

Practically, this means that the only store I regularly go in is the supermarket. I've also been to the hardware store once, or maybe a baby store when we're getting a gift for someone. Otherwise I haven't been in stores. No department stores. No outlets. No shopping apps on my phone.

I'm only three months in, but I find that I have a clearer mind. Having taken the popular shopping apps off my phone, and I'm finding that what I do now when I open my phone is that I read more. I don't aimlessly click and drag around apps anymore for things I don't need.

And I mean this isn't like me bragging. It's a struggle. I'm a materialistic person, I love accumulating things. I'm just also seeing the downside of it after so many years of this behavior and toxic thought. I don't want my self worth to be tied to the acquisition of things. I don't want that for my kids, either.

It's also not like I'm not spending money. I'm still registering for races. I haven't bought running gear in awhile, but that will come up at some point as I put wear and tear on my gear. But I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now I'm just happier with less time spent in physical commercial spaces, and more time spent on family and personal experiences.

I'm also hoping to dramatically downsize the amount of crap that I have. I'm donating clothes, looking at what I have in my kitchen that I don't regularly use (trying to use it more, or lose it.) Stuff just has to change. Some of it can do others more good than me, and that's fine.

And I mean, by the way, I don't judge anyone who likes a run to the department store. I'm just at a place where I'm tired of being sold on things. I'm tired of feeling like I can't actually stop myself from buying a stupid amount of useless crap that I have no room for in my house. If you like your Sunday morning roaming around the department store, awesome. I've been there, I've done that. It isn't for me. I'd rather get up early, clean my kitchen, and make a batch of pancakes.

Hopefully by the end of the year I look back and feel like I gained a whole lot of experience from it. I'm also hoping it communicates a message to my kids growing up that it isn't about what you buy as much as who you're with and what you're doing. The idea of an experience as a gift and a thing to be savored isn't new, but it is something I think needs to come into focus more now.

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."

--Mahatma Gandhi

A lot is made of my generation's impact on traditional economic and social institutions. One of the dominating headlines lately is the sudden bankruptcy of a popular chain of brick-and-mortar toy stores. I'm not indifferent to the loss of jobs, and I will admit to a mild amount of nostalgia for my time spent in such places as a young man. But really, I don't think that it's a terrible thing to avoid stores. A store is basically a place which promises a positive experience provided you intend to spend money there.

I'm finding that among parents I know the trend is away from buying lots of things, and towards lower tech experiences. It's a difficult thing because many of us see in ourselves a dependence on technology, but also recognize the downfalls of it. Having a device means that nearly 24/7 you're faced with the decision of buying something or not. I don't have too many doubts that spending less time on devices is a positive thing. But... I do love my device. I like the content I can consume through it, and I like gratification I get from it. I'll write about this massive ambivalence on technology another time. I love tech, and I love toys. It's rampant consumerism I hate.

Probably the children who make up the next generation will grow up in a backlash to these attitudes towards parenting, that seems to be the way of things. They'll no doubt revel in stores, and technology if we limit their access to those things. I'll admit fully to not having the answers to all of these things, but for me I know I need to limit my own involvement in them. Maybe there's a way to raise kids with a healthy attitude towards these negative influences, but my guess is no one has that figured out yet. I find the media I consume on the topic condescending at best, and ignorant of the whole picture at worst.

I'm sure this is the beginning of a longer conversation, however.


Long rambling post aside, life progresses. I've had to take some time off from marathon training at my wife's insistence, due to a horrid cold. I'm going back out today for my first long run in awhile, and looking forward to it. I've got muscle definition in my legs I've never seen before, and I'm very much looking forward to a successful return to the Eastern States 20 mile road race this weekend. I'm planning a post on my history with that race for later this week, but we'll see when it gets published.

Likewise work is progressing on the house. Cleaned and organized the kitchen this weekend, made multiple loaves of bread as well as an excellent corned beef dinner for St. Patrick's day. Lots of traditional Irish music filling the house (along with the standard, more "touristy" fare.) My daughter has been walking around singing "Molly Malone" for the last week which is one of the cuter things I've ever seen in my life. Painting the spare room today, hopefully moving the spare room furniture out of my living room by Wednesday so things will feel back to normal.

Ended up doing several errands as well this weekend to get ready for the baby, but we're well on our way. Clothes and diapers are bought, the nursery is set up and can handle two children. I know that by the time we welcome baby #2 not everything will be as I want it, and that will be fine. Among the projects I may let slide until summer are getting the second car fixed up so that we can sell it. It's actually time to buy a van (there might be a post on this coming as well.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are appreciated, but will be moderated.