A public development of my political and philosophical musings. Occasional thoughts on current events. Primarily for personal satisfaction.

Monday, March 01, 2004

In my opening post, I confessed my status as an anarchist. This blog is in large part an effort to fully describe what I mean when I say that. I also claim that most people, choosing freely, would see anarchism as the best choice.

Unfortunately, few choose freely. We are so manipulated when searching for answers to life’s various questions that we don’t even know what questions to ask. For instance, everyone, when asked what they want out of life, will answer, “to be happy.” The actual words used may vary: to be a good father, a good mother, respected, well liked, cure cancer, bring world peace, be an omnipotent potentate, etc. What they ultimately mean is that they want to be fulfilled and content with their station in life. They want to be happy.

In a capitalist, market driven society, happiness is closely tied up with the pursuit of money—happiness is acquisition and money is the fuel that runs the buying machine. We need an endless supply of objects, which creates an endless need for money, which keeps us working far beyond what is necessary for survival or even comfort.

The formula is half right: Money is a means to happiness, but acquisition as an end in itself is an empty, unsatisfying exercise. On some level, this is generally understood (intellectually, people know that buying some product will not make them as beautiful and happy as the person in the commercial), but there is a second level of coercion at work that has prevented people from abandoning the model.

That second level of coercion is our concept of success. It takes time and focus to get to know people well enough to judge their value in terms of ethics and intellect, trustworthiness and admirability. So instead we use cues: beauty, grooming, and, most importantly, apparent wealth as evidenced by the quantity and quality of a person’s possessions. It’s a convenient shortcut that makes some sense in an economy like ours: he or she must be good and smart to amass the money to get these things.

The problem is, we’ve become so comfortable with the shortcut that we’ve forgotten that it’s not the finish line itself (we know what people are willing to show the public, but we don’t know how or why they got it—we don’t know their methods and motivations). Instead, we’ve come to so closely identify the possession with the personal qualities that we’ve separated the person from the qualities and attached them to the possessions. That is, we’ve come to assume that if we achieve that level of possession, we will have those qualities. And since money can buy almost any tangible object, money itself becomes the finish line.

Certainly, money can help you achieve what you want. But it’s just a tool. A good tool, maybe, but only a tool and one of many. It is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve your true goal in life. But since we are actively discouraged by marketers from looking deeper, most people fail to see the nature of the tool.

So now within this context, most of us work hard, hoping to achieve some level of wealth. And because we’re fortunate enough to be Americans, we stand a good chance of getting there. But when we do and find we’re not happy, we tend to conclude the problem is that we set our sights too low—we rarely question the underlying assumption that money is the answer to our problems. We work more or harder, make more money, buy more stuff, accumulate more debt. If we successfully move another rung up the economic ladder, we find we’re merely empty and suffocated in a nicer or more cluttered house. That wasn’t the answer.

Most of us don’t know what to do with this discovery and ultimately wait to retire or die, accepting a disappointed life. It’s so common it’s a cliché: the rat race, the white picket fence: beautiful on the outside but empty or fetid on the inside; optimism is for youth, before reality crushes our dreams, and so on.

We can’t find the answer because we’re not asking the right questions—because we confuse a tool (money) with a goal (fulfillment). And because we don’t see the true purpose of money, we don’t use it properly as a tool.

Here’s one experience (mine) and one observation (someone else’s):

Experience: I live in New York City, having moved here from Ohio in 1995. Housing being what it is in these two places, I accumulated lots of furniture and assorted knick-knacks and dust collectors in Ohio. When I left, I had to throw out all that I could bear to throw out. When I arrived in New York, I had to throw out more.

In 1999, I lost my lease in Brooklyn and had to move again. The apartments I looked at were very small but they were at rents I could afford in neighborhoods I wanted to live in. That should be good enough. But while looking at each apartment, I pictured where my couch would go, where my table would go, my TV and so on, and each time I concluded that I couldn’t live there because there was no way my furniture would fit.

Suddenly it dawned on me—my furniture is deciding where I’m going to live. They were exactly right in Fight Club—my possessions possess me! They weigh me down, their safety worries me, maintaining them takes my time and buying them takes my paycheck. I work jobs I hate to buy junk I don’t need.

And now they’re deciding where I’m going to live!

So I threw out almost everything—I kept my bed, dresser, clothes, stereo, softball mitt and little else. I’m a pretty nostalgic person. Parting was painful, but, once done, I was shocked at how little I missed. I was just fine. Turns out, all that stuff I worked so hard for added virtually nothing to my life.

Observation: The Dalai Lama, in The Art of Happiness, cited psychological testing results that I didn’t check, but ring true and comport with my personal experiences. He said that people who are generous and have compassion for others tend to be happier then selfish, grasping people. Somewhat counterintuitive, but undoubtedly true—you can make your life better by focusing on making other people’s lives better.

So our system, which teaches us to accumulate things to make our lives better, precisely prevents us from being happy and content with our lives! Most people intuitively know this—we will help a person in need if the cost to ourselves is not too great. And large numbers of people do some sort of charitable work, even if it’s merely giving loose change to a beggar. We feel better about ourselves afterwards. Who doesn’t get a lift from making a positive difference in someone else’s life?

But we’re so bombarded by contrary messages that we cannot go beyond these small gestures, momentary opportunities for easy sainthood. It’s considered heroic when a person makes public service the center of his or her life, but we also feel that that person is a dupe, divorced from reality, a little bit sad. “Do-gooder” isn’t a compliment.

If this weren’t true, these people wouldn’t be so rare. We recognize on some metaphysical level just how rich people dedicated to public service really are, but we’re afraid to go there ourselves. So I suppose they are courageous. But only at first. Then they learn how little it costs to sacrifice material wealth.

As I see it, that’s one of the strengths of Anarchism—it takes what, under a capitalist system, is a courageous choice that few people are confident enough to make and brings it easily within the reach of all. Indeed, the freedom to choose and the dignity of the individual are the foundations of Anarchism.
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