It is the season of giving, we’re told by commercial after commercial. This time of year we are inundated by advertisements for what will make your daughter, son, mother, father, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, man-on-the-side, mistress, dog trainer, therapist, UPS delivery guy, car washer, and neighbor’s poodle the happiest this holiday season. Give the kid a car. Buy the wife a ring. Get the hubby a drill set. Aside from the innate sexism of this overly commercialized holiday (The Atlantic does a great round-up here), one thing is more than clear: These things DO NOT make us happier.
We are drenched in things. We have TVs for just about every room in the house, different cars for different occasions, shoes that match every sweater, a handbag for every day of the week, and don’t forget about the jewelry, the gadgets, the iPhones, iPads, e-readers, laptops, desktops, and mp3 players. And we are constantly being told to think only of how we can make more money so that we can accumulate more and more and more. We purchase bigger houses so that we can fill them with our belongings and when that house, too, proves too small, we expand and grow to fill an even larger plot of land. We stuff our lives full of cheap plastic and nifty gadgets to distract us from the fact that we have lost our compass in life. As Chris Hedges puts it in his book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle“, we vainly hope that if we appear to be happy and successful, we may truly become happy and successful. He writes,
“The realities within the home, the actual family relationships, are never addressed. Appearances make everything whole. Plastic surgeons, fitness gurus, diet doctors, therapists, life coaches, interior designers, and fashion consultants all, in essence, promise to make us happy, to make us celebrities. And happiness comes, we are assured, with we look and how we present ourselves to others…The route to happiness is bound up in how skillfully we show ourselves to the world. We not only have to conform to the dictates of this manufactured vision, but we also have to project an unrelenting optimism and happiness.”
It is a perverse cycle. We work ourselves to death seeking a lavish lifestyle in the hopes that we will find happiness in our expensive clothes and large houses – things which only augment our feelings of emptiness and despair, making us feel more alone and disconnected as we bury ourselves in our extravagant belongings. As we attempt to fill the gaping void in our lives with material wealth, the void only grows; a black hole ever-expanding as we throw more and more useless things into it. There is a famous quote by the Dalai Lama who, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said,
“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
This unrelenting, desperate search for material wealth will not give us what we ultimately strive for. We will not find peace nor happiness in another pair of shoes or another car or a better phone. We will not suddenly find our lives transformed if we buy a bigger house and try to live above our means. Instead we find that we are more alone than ever. Our personal relationships and our connection to the greater humanity becomes more and more frayed as we heap more of our consumer baggage upon it. We have forgotten the ties that bind us to each other.
This Christmas, forgo that cheap child-labor made sweater you were going to buy your husband. Don’t buy your spoiled child another video game or Barbie. Forget about covering your wife in more blood diamonds. Instead, why not give a gift in his or her name to someone who could really use your aid. There are a multitude of fantastic non-profit organizations that are in need of your donations. This year, I opted out of more cheap toys for my nieces and instead made a symbolic adoption in their names for their favorite endangered animal. Other organizations like the International Rescue Committee allow you to choose from different causes. For just $24, you can give the gift of a safe delivery to an expectant mother. For only $23, you can provide emergency care for a child. $52 can send a young girl to school for a year – something that is not possible for many girls in places like Afghanistan. At Heifer International, you can choose from a number of animals to donate to a family or village, helping to bring them out of poverty and provide food and a means to make a living.
This self-destructive lifestyle focused on mere accumulation will not bring us any closer to what we desire. More important than your house or car or clothes or gadgets are your relationships to people. This holiday season, if you are lucky enough to live a life of material wealth, make the choice to share it with people that truly need it.