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 “You’re breaking up with him? Why? He has such a great car!”

I remember laughing to myself when I heard this conversation some years ago between two seniors at a high school where I once taught, but it perhaps amply illustrates how possessions—and their pursuit—have always tended to warp our judgment. We love stuff, and we presume that more of it (or at least proximity to someone else’s) will make us happier. This is certainly the case many times (particularly on Christmas Day), but it can also be said that—oddly enough—our pursuit of more and more often satisfies less and less these days. There are likely a couple of reasons why this is so.

First off, I suspect that the ease with which we can now purchase everything under the sun is not entirely a blessing. I know the convenience on-line shopping is an incredible boon for many—particularly if one cannot easily travel to the store. There is, in addition, the benefit of near infinite choice when shopping and excellent bargains can often be found. Moreover, there is no need to park a car or take public transit, wrestle one’s purchases down the escalator, or push through crowds only to find that the item we want is no longer available. All of this—and I mean all of it—is absolutely true. I cannot deny it, and those who love on-line shopping cannot see a reason why anyone would not celebrate Amazon.com as the finest achievement of our civilization to date.

I am, however, unconvinced because it seems to me that “retail therapy” no longer seems to provide the same pleasure it once did. I know I sound like a terrible curmudgeon to feel this way, but I am old enough to remember when shopping meant an outing with family or friends, healthy walking spiced by a great deal of conversation, and a stop for a pop, snack, or hot chocolate that provided a chance to recharge and regroup, which turned into yet more bonding and sharing in the process. Memories were created and relationships cemented. All of this seems to me to be far preferable to what we have today.

Perhaps it is simply the case that what we obtain without the social and emotional investment that the tradition shopping experience entailed is intrinsically less satisfying—or the holes is our souls are now sometimes too large to fill with throw pillows or a cute purse—but it does not seem to me that base consumerism lightens the load as it once did. Maybe I am dead wrong about this—and I would be foolish not to admit the possibility—but I believe that something of value has been lost that is diminishing our lives just a smidge as we move from lots of shops and stores filled with people to cavernous, fluorescently-lit warehouses supplying fleets of soon-to-be robotic delivery trucks that stop, drop, and drive off without a word.

In addition, although I readily concede that video games and virtual reality googles can be a hoot, it may be the case that the nature of what we now buy is far less exciting and provides less pleasure than what was available in the past. Presuming that in these difficult economic times we even have the cash to make the purchase, a reasonable case can be made that, for example, a Prius is far less stimulating than a 1969 Pontiac GTO once was. Moreover, so much of our spending on smart phones, computers, tablets, and other electronics tends to promote social isolation for many instead of providing the adventuresome physical joys we associated with a new baseball glove or cherry-red bicycle. Playing football on your iPad, although diverting, is nowhere near as much fun as catching a perfectly thrown pass on a crisp autumn afternoon, and it provides nowhere near the same sustaining memories to carry throughout our lives. I doubt grandparents will someday be dandling their grandchildren on their knees and regaling them with stories of their high scores on video games—or at least I hope this will not be the case.

However, I believe there is still yet more to the story here. For some reason, despite living in a nation awash in wonderful shiny stuff, many of us seem to feel increasingly annoyed with the present and anxious about the future—a feeling that was amply demonstrated in the results of this year’s Presidential election. Why is this so?

Setting aside the problem that many of us can no longer afford the wonderful shiny stuff, I suspect that many people today are cranky and frustrated because they feel that they have little or no control over their lives—so nothing they can purchase can really make much of a difference in promoting happiness or a sense of well-being. Pleasure cannot easily co-exist with the sad passivity that I believe is one of the most salient characteristics of our collective social fabric today. To feel anything intensely requires engagement, but we often seem not to be able to muster much passion for anything although—perhaps paradoxically—we grit our teeth in anger about being reduced to this state.

To have the control of our daily lives stripped away by bureaucrats, academics, and lawyers is infuriating enough, but to be told over and over again that we need to sit and take it is likely a major contributor to the tsunami of discontent that is now upending our politics and fragmenting our nation. Psychologists call this syndrome “learned helplessness”; the average person has a more prosaic description, “being forced to eat sh*t.” Pundits and credentialed commentators are bemoaning a rise of populist politics in America and elsewhere that they equate with sheer ignorance, but it may be the case that many are simply rejecting the statist supervision of everything they say or do. All the toys, texting, and tchotchkes in the world cannot compensate for a loss of agency. Everywhere we turn there is a rule, regulation, “voluntary” guideline, or law circumscribing how we can act, speak, or think—and what we must accept as our lot in life.

That which is done “for our own good” by others will never rest easy on our souls. For example, we now have to drive that Prius instead of that GTO not because we are no longer thrilled by racing down the open road but because big block muscle cars have been largely legislated out of existence by federal fuel economy, emissions, and safety standards that have—depending on your point of view—either saved the planet or condemned most of us to driving incredibly expensive putt-putt shoeboxes. Although one can argue for the necessity of government regulation in pursuit of a larger social good in this particular instance, the net effect of never-ending oversight of everything we do has been that the romance of unfettered possibility that once seemed an American birthright has been supplanted over the past half century by the demands of a metastasizing nanny state seemingly intent on controlling us rather that encouraging our dreams.

Of course, the parental nature of the state is, according to its defenders, designed solely to control our worst instincts and protect us from the great unknowns, and this is certainly appreciated—to a point. However, just as we all sometimes prefer to make our own mistakes rather than have someone “protect” us, we generally like to be able to live our lives with as few restrictions, controls, and monitoring mechanisms as are congruent with public health and safety. All of us would certainly endorse any rule that prevented us from living in a home that was likely to burst into flames any instant; few of us want to be told how we can interact with our neighbors, what our children should be taught to believe, and where our holiday displays may or may not be placed. No matter the fine intentions of the architects of policies designed to protect polar bears, teach tolerance, or support the impoverished, if a hammer is used to make the points or enforce the edicts, people are going to become awfully annoyed awfully quickly.

It is little wonder that so many are now pushing back against a governmental culture that is obsessed with overseeing the most granular details of our lives—up to and including how our toilets flush, whether we can burn leaves in the fall, and what time we put our trash cans on the curb for collection. The shape and scope of this soft rebellion is still a work in progress, but I expect we are going to see more and more battles in the years ahead over who has the final say about the most basic decisions regarding the paths of our daily lives, families, and communities. The results should be interesting—to say the least—and we should all resolve to think carefully and deeply about what we want government to do for us now that big changes—if change is what one wants—seem to be just over the horizon.

As for me, my goals for 2017 are to go out and engage with the world more, stop being beguiled by mindless distractions, and express due annoyance with having my words, thoughts, and actions subject to approval or censure from anyone who (mistakenly) believes that they have a right to do so. I also plan to drop the top on my convertible on the first warm day of spring and take my wife for a long drive in the country before stopping for an ice cream cone, ride our bicycles as much as possible, and play a game of catch with my grandson until the twilight chases us inside.

Finally, to the extent that is possible in our scorched retail landscape, I plan to browse in actual stores this coming year. I don’t know what—if anything—I will purchase, but I just want to get a taste of an experience that might be going the way of the Dodo as it disappears altogether.

And let’s all have a healthy, happy, and speak-out-loud 2017!

 

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