On the Spiritual Decay of Consumption-Centered, Individualistic Culture

At the outset, it would be wise to offer the caveat that material concerns are legitimate and extremely relevant to quality of life. Without sufficient material resources, there is very little redeeming about a life lived in destitution. There can be no philosophy, art, or any of the finer things in life within a starving civilization, forever on the brink of annihilation.

To those living in poverty, moralizing about the pursuit of material comfort can come across as condescending and preachy. That acquiring resources necessary to thrive is somehow wrong is not the point I would ever like to make.

In my view, the mistake that people often make — which I opine on in more detail in the context of the study of Vietnam (a nation that has recently developed material abundance and a growing middle class) in my expat memoir and slow-motion existential meltdown “Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile” —  is attempting to find meaning and purpose in the pursuit of material wealth as a substitute for spiritual sustenance.

Material abundance can only create the material conditions for human thriving; it is a means (one of many) to an end rather than a end itself.

Here is David Foster Wallace, author of perhaps the best essay-length treatise on the quasi-religion that has been made out of material comfort, “Shipping Out,” on the spiritual rot of materialism as a substitute for transcendent meaning in 2003 (five years before killing himself):

We all worship, and we all have a religious impulse. We can choose to an extent what we worship, but the myth that we worship nothing and give ourselves away to nothing is simply… sets us up to give ourselves away to something different – for instance, pleasure, or drugs, or the idea of having a lot of money and being able to buy nice stuff. Or, in the tennis academy, um, it’s somewhat different. It’s devotion to an athletic pursuit that requires a certain amount of sacrifice and discipline that is nevertheless an individual sport and one that’s trying to get ahead as an individual…

Whatever the conditions of hopelessness… have to do with an American idea and not a universal one but one that I think kids get exposed to very early that you are the most important and what you want is the most important… and your job in life is to gratify your own desires…

Of course, nobody tells you. I mean, mom and dad don’t sit you down and say things. This is something very subtle as delivered by a great many messages… this is one enormous engine and temple of self-gratification and self-advancement and in some ways it works very, very well. In other ways, it doesn’t work all that well… It seems as if there are whole other parts of me that need to worry about things larger than me that don’t get nourished in that system.

Everyone gets a trophy!

What is not true is that there is such a thing as an atheist in the world. There never has been one and never will be so long as humans are human and not transhuman androids.

What is true, at least in the West but increasingly in the rapidly developing economies of the former Third World, is that God is dead, as Nietzsche infamous proclaimed — a proclamation often misunderstood as an atheistic triumph over religion but which in fact has a much deeper meaning that I have explored in greater depth elsewhere.

God is dead in the West, but the religious impulse, being innate and immutable, is not. The self, financial resources, material excess — these are poor substitutes as objects of worship for anything transcendent, be it God or Allah or Gaia or whatever. This is what I’ve learned.

As for marketers and advertisers who preach the opposite message of self-actualization through material acquisition, I wish they’d absorb Bill Hicks’ magnificent advice.

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