Consumerism, I gathered from Wiki, is “a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts.” I have been asking myself this question: Am I am consumerist? Do I buy goods in ever greater amounts? Am I driven by greed and the desire to own things in hoards?
I confess, once upon a time, when I worked in the city, I bought something nearly every other day – from the shops. Once upon a time, I was always in need of a new serving dish, a new spatula, new cookbook, a new wok, a new pan, a new blender. The list has no end. My desires have no end.
When my kid was growing up, and while we lived in Singapore, we had a wall lined up with toys….We had cupboards choking with clothes for our kid. We had CDs running out of a space on the CD rack. We had books that were bursting from the shelves. Our clothes kept filling up the cupboards. The situation is pretty much the same in NZ.
A few years ago, I made a resolution to stop buying things. I have been partially successful. This year, I haven’t bought anything I didn’t truly need – I have prevented myself from buying a fruit juicer although it does look a bit dated. I am still wearing T-shirts I bought 10 years ago. I should feel so proud of myself. But then, how did I go so wrong with passing on this to my kid?
Have my bad habits set up up my kid into a consumerist? My child threw out a whole of clothes into the “pink bag” for recyling. “Why,” I asked. They looked perfectly good and were barely worn. “Last season’s clothes, mum,” was the answer. She has been through 3 handphones since she was Yr 6. She is in Yr 8. Her fourth one has just been ordered -- using her birthday money from family/friends.
Consumers are driven by their need to ever possess the latest in products and services. Our society is built upon growing at all costs. The “small is beautiful” economic theory propounded by British economist E. F. Schumacher doesn’t go down well in our consumerist world. Isn’t every country after greater GDP growth; every company after greater profits; every household after the latest iPads, iPhones or iWant! In this arena, the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s Gross National Happiness pursuit is definitely a worthy cause. Bhutan's macro economic policy is built upon attaining GNP, which encompass Buddhist ideals of spiritual wealth and health rather than pure materialistic wealth/health.
My teenage kid has never been through a single day of “lacking” in anything. I have to keep reminding her that there are people who have no food to eat. “Mum, what are we having for dinner,” she quips. “Fried rice,” I answered. The disappointment was evident. “Can we have something nice!”
Every generation needs a war, some wise person once said. This is so true. We live in a world where we have everything we want -- instantly! If we had to grow all our food, would we still be throwing our so much food into the compost or bin? If we have to draw water from the well, would we be having long showers? I read in Moa's Last Dancer -- the Chinese village folks were so poor, they ate everything that moved. They were lucky if they had meat once a year, for Chinese New York, even then, with more fat than meat!
The struggle for me has, and always will be, to live a moderate life -- one not driven by the need to own and consume, but a life based on moderation.
Every day, I become more aware that my teen has an extremely different set of values. Is my generation so different to hers? Am I out of whack in that I can't see the point in having so many pieces of fashionable clothes, all the nail polish, all the hair products, eye shadow, Chucks, Vans, Supre. Is this just the way the world is going and am I am fighting a losing battle?
Over the weekend, at our local tennis club, I met this young lady Judy (not her real name) who is a highly talented sportsperson. She is a high achiever in all areas of sports: table tennis,swimming, netball, socceer,and athletics. Her grandma tells us she has only been playing tennis a few years yet she is playing such high quality tennis at the moment.
While we were yakking away watching my other half play, Judy was asked what she wanted to do after she finishes school. I heard her made this remark: “I am not smart in school.” Her pronouncement was made as if her fate was sealed and the doors to future academia was closed to her forever.
I took the opportunity to tell her not to believe in the “I am not smart” thought process. Here is the thing about our brain – it is like a muscle, the more you use it, the better it becomes. At the end of the day, it may take Judy a lot more time to get to where “the smart kids” can achieve, nevertheless Judy can learn to make her brain work harder in areas she cannot do.
Noted author cum paediatrician Mel Levine’s One Mind at a Time is worth revisiting. Levine’s book highlights that our mind comes in different shapes and forms. Some kids may have advance verbal language skills but are poor spellers or writers. Another kid can’t follow things in a sequence. Have you ever met someone who can take apart complex parts of a machine but is never interested in school and its process? His overriding message is it is not that important to be good at everything.
Judy the sportsperson has superior kinaesthetic skills. Some people are wired like that. But boxing herself as “not smart” couldn’t be furthest from the truth. She is very smart – just in a different way.
Looking back at my school days, I can’t help but notice, a lot of the good sportspeople weren’t necessarily the most academic; and the top girls usually were quite poorly coordinated. There were exceptions of course but they were few and far between. I remember a girl in my class who could draw the most detailed pictures in art, obviously she had far superior spatial skills, but was never that good at other stuff in school. Again – nature can be cruel or kind – you can be endowed with all levels of intelligence or miss quite a few.
There is a message worth reinforcing to our kids – being smart (in the way that implies one has natural aptitude for passing exams or getting a high score by not having to work as hard) does not guarantee success in life.
The early bird catches the worm. The tortoise eventually won the race. The hoards of ants around my house never stop working to feed the queen ant. There are plenty of examples to show our kids that effort counts the most. If we work at something long enough, eventually we too will “get it”.
Mum used to always tell us “failure is the mother of all success”. It wasn’t necessarily internalised when I was young. But now, a lot older, and hopefully wiser, I would like to pass on this to my kid: the real advantage is not having brains but being able to keep trying, never giving up. Eventually, the person who succeeds is none other than the one willing to stay in the game the longest.