05 September, 2011

The Culture of Lack, or My Naive and Expansive Dream

Someone once told me that, since I had a place to live and a good education, I had no right to be upset about anything, ever. Clearly this individual felt that any kind of access to financial means completely quashed the capacity for suffering, and clearly this individual was full of shit.

But what strikes me the most is how frequent and pervasive this illusory societal construction is—that money incrementally equates to happiness, satisfaction, and, thus, the elimination of suffering. From my observation, it is just the opposite. The more money we have—or rather, the more money we think others have that we do not—the more unhappy we are by virtue of this culture of lack, which has been thriving for generations.

This is no new insight, I'm well aware, but I'm increasingly frustrated by a world that shuns the qualities it does possess in favor of what the Other has, while simultaneously demonizing the Other for what it is not and failing to recognize what it actually is, which is, more or less, just like everyone else. We're taught from as early an age as possible that making mistakes—being wrong—is one of the worst corporeal sins one can commit, but making mistakes is also the only way one truly learns, grows, and innovates. We're taught that not knowing is a grievous humiliation so we pretend to know things we know nothing about, losing out on great opportunities for learning as well as increasing the overall sense of shame one bears for various, perceived lacks in character and quality.

This Culture of Lack so openly celebrates having over doing that achievement, once seemingly measured by contributions to family, community, and country, has impressed upon millions that one cannot DO until one HAS. We mimic surprise when one kid kills another for his sneakers, shoes that were made by other kids enduring inhumane conditions in some far-off, exotic sounding locale and feel secretly satisfied about our luck at being born in another hemisphere. We ape the appropriate outrage about genocide in unruly African nations, about famine, conflict diamonds and minerals, and whatever other crisis-du jour is making the headlines of the NYT this week, but are more inclined to mobilize in protest should someone threaten to take away our DVRs.

In some magical other-time wistfully recalled by mournful seniors, America apparently used to be a country whereby one succeeded by accomplishment, and monetary value was thus often allotted based on how much work one actually performed. Childhood heroes were people like astronauts, baseball players, social activists, and local firemen. Imagine Amelia Earhart attempting her flavor of success today, battling some kind of Snooki or Real Housewife for airtime. Marilyn Monroe would be relegated to the Plus-Size edition of America's Next Top Model. Teddy Roosevelt would be lambasted for his liberal bias and un-American conservationism.

What can be done about all this nonsense? I have no idea. Likely nothing. But we, as individuals, can refuse to buy into the bullshit, both literally and figuratively. We can cultivate our sense of wonder, curiosity, passionate interest, and basic common courtesy. We can celebrate our mistakes, say "I don't know" with a smile, and realize that true, cultivated self-interest also serves the needs of our communities. We can insist that education is not embodied by, and does not end with, a diploma. We can cut out an hour or two of TV a day and spend the time necessary to appreciate something like a book or a walk or a sunset. We can invest in relationships instead of reveling in their demise from afar. We can, in short, become better people, and better people make better worlds.

At least I think so. Welcome to my naivete.

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