Recently, I’ve been reading the excellent book The Price of Privilege by Dr. Madeline Levine, which discussed the prevalence of depression and social problems among affluent teens. For the most part, the book lays the blame for this problem squarely on the parents: in their race to affluence, they failed to give adequate time, attention, and focus to their children. She even goes so far as to talk about “soccer moms,” suggesting that they often fall prey to this – they give their children some of their time, but not their focused attention, pointing out that driving your children to soccer practice while talking on one’s cell phone is not giving them reasonably valuable nurturing.
So why mention this book here? Along the way, Levine makes a few very interesting points about how materialism often becomes a substitute for real relationships. She recounts this story on page 46 (my emphases added):
As a young and inexperienced therapist, I was part of a team counseling a very wealthy couple going through a divorce. The wife would spend hours in my office lamenting the loss of her lifestyle. She wept most about her sheets. She had spent years sleeping on the finest Egyptian cotton, carefully ironed and scented by the laundress. As a twenty-eight-year-old financially struggling intern, I was at a total loss to understand her sorrow about her sheets. Now I understand that those sheets were a stand-in for the many things she was losing: her marriage, home, family, friends, and status. Decades later, I understand her upset about losing her costly cotton sheets. “Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities.” We all have things, luxuries, really, that we’ve become attached to and would feel deprived without. Liking stuff isn’t the problem; liking stuff more than people is. My patient was losing a lifetime of connection, and yet her grief centered on the things, not the people, she was losing.
When I reflected on my own life, particularly my wants and desires, I quickly realized that Levine was onto something.
Not too long ago, several people asked me what I wanted as a gift for my thirtieth birthday. I made a list of several things – a decent food processor, a couple of DVDs that I’d watch over and over again, some food items that I wouldn’t normally splurge on (like amaranth flour), a board game, a few books, a video game, and Rosetta Stone French.
When I thought carefully about all of those requests – even the ones that seem to be fairly solitary activities – each one of them revolves around a feeling and a relationship I share with others. The items are just manifestations of the connections I have with other people.
Take the food processor and the food items. I love preparing dinner for my wife and my children – I do it almost every night. There’s something elementally pleasing about the experience, and those gifts simply let me expand on that connection.
The books? Books educate me and give me thoughts to share with others. I love talking about books with my wife, and that shared experience of a book we’ve both read and loved is sublime.
Even Rosetta Stone is about an experience. I dream of a family vacation to France, getting outside of the city and into the countryside. I want to learn enough of the language so that such a trip is actually reasonable and possible for us, and as I use the software, I’m thinking of my wife and I in a French inn, enjoying a bottle of wine, or camping in the Alps and exploring the terrain with my son and daughter.
Here’s the real truth: as I’ve stopped buying so much stuff and started thinking carefully about the purchases that actually matter to me, they wind up being ones that are inherently tied to personal meaning and personal relationships. Stuff for the sake of having stuff doesn’t really have any meaning in the end – the stuff that has meaning is the stuff that you can share with others, or that profoundly changes you (and thus your relationships with others).
I think my continued interest in video games is a good example of this. When I was in a period of purchasing a video game a week, I would often leave games in their wrapper for months on end – in fact, when I finally got rid of my PS2, I had about twenty games still in their wrappers.
What I was buying wasn’t a video game. I was buying a shared experience. When I realized that, I realized two things: one, buying more video games was like scratching a mosquito bite – it just made the itch worse. Second, the value I actually got was in playing through the games themselves, sometimes personally growing as a result of it, and sharing that experience with my friends – loaning it to them after I’ve finished it, talking about it, and so on.
A great example of this is the game I’m currently playing on my Nintendo DS – The World Ends With You. It’s not only one I enjoy talking about with my friends, but I’m already looking forward to lending it to one friend in particular when I finish it so he can play through it. Not only that, it’s steeped in nostalgia for me, taking me back to my high school years when I sat around one of my friend’s living rooms for literally hours and hours as we played through long games. There’s a lot of personal meaning there.
For you, the connection to others might have other elements. For the lady in the story, for example, her connection to others was manifested, oddly enough, through her sheets – they provided a deep, personal comfort to her.
This is why sometimes it’s hard to let go of stuff. You’re not really that concerned about the item itself, but you’re losing the connection to someone else or some part of you that the item represents.
Perhaps you want to keep a good book that really warmed your soul, and you seek out new books that can click with you in a similar way. You’re not wanting books, you’re wanting that connection. Or maybe you can’t imagine life without your cell phone – it’s not your cell phone itself you care about, but the connections it helps you make to others.
The next time you get a burning desire for something beyond an actual need, one so strong that you feel compelled to just go buy that item, think about this: is it really the object that you desire, or is it something else? Are you perhaps trying to fill an empty space inside of you? Bring back a high moment in your life? Create a connection with someone, or build upon that connection?
Then, ask yourself if there isn’t already a way to achieve that desire.
Maybe instead of buying someone a gift, you might be able to connect more deeply with a visit or a long phone call.
Perhaps instead of buying yet another video game, you could play through the one you have, then call up one of your friends, get together over dinner, have a great conversation, and swap games.
Instead of picking up yet another book, go join a book club a the library or simply check out one of the books that clicked deeply with you.
Instead of buying something to escape from your situation, tackle the thing that you’re trying to escape head on.
Good luck in finding your answers.