Our behavior, whether we admit it or not, is largely dictated by forces much older and more powerful than our individual choices. The weight of a million histories, of past decisions made by long dead rulers of nations and industry, bears down on every living person. We call this weight “culture” and it is an amalgamation of every religious, political and economic rule, spoken and unspoken, that a given group of people grow to observe over time. In the United States of America, our culture has been shaped by, among other forces, Christianity, Democracy, and Capitalism.
These three forces have been made to coexist amazingly well in our culture, as they all emphasize the importance and power of individuality. However, all of these systems, while encouraging individuality, also encourage conformity on how that individuality is expressed. In the United States of America, one’s individuality seems inextricably tied to and expressed via his or her spending habits. This has created a situation in which the accumulation of things has become extremely important not only to self identity, but to the health of the nation as a whole.
This is not the way healthy people, or a healthy society operates, primarily because an emphasis on the accumulation of material goods strips the core out of the human experience. Being human is about so much more than living luxuriously, or living better than those around you. Being human is about understanding the variety of experiences that fall under the human umbrella and the blind focus on things rather than experience and learning inhibits this process. Not all things are bad certainly: shelter and clothing being necessary in most parts of the world, but when we use things as a substitute for people or experience we do ourselves, and the society that benefits from our involvement, a serious disservice. We need to revisit the concept of “enough”.
Having enough doesn’t mean living in need, and it doesn’t mean living in want. Having enough is a recognition that there is more to life than the accumulation of stuff beyond those needs and wants. It is a recognition that things cost not only money but time and health (think of the stressful job one has to hold down to pay for a larger than necessary house). When we spend our time, energy and money on things we have less to spend on experience. Unlike stuff, you can never accumulate too much experience. Without the concept of enough, our society becomes a well insured, wealthy group of shallow and inconsequential people. Great innovations in human history have come from a desire to elevate the human experience, not increase the human portfolio of things. A society which cannot identify when it has enough is doomed to race around the same circle, over and over, hauling an increasing burden of stuff, never getting anywhere.
So now that we have more than enough computers and phones and cars and houses in America, lets think about sharing that with those who do not have enough. Lets think about improving the human condition through medicine. Lets think about expanding our scientific knowledge and our reach into space. Lets take all the money we spend on things we can’t take with us when we die and spend it on great works that future generations can build upon. Saying enough isn’t saying we should stop growing, it is saying that we need to re-evaluate our concept of growth, where it comes from, and where its taking us.