The holiday season has been over for several weeks now. And for several weeks, I’ve been contemplating the complaint we seem to hear every year from social critics bemoaning the rampant materialism of our culture. People, they say, care more about buying new things than they do about caring for each other and the planet. These critics decry the commercialism of Christmas. And while I agree that our society has become dangerously acquisitive, I’m wondering if the solution isn’t for people to become more materialistic rather than less.
If we really were materialistic, wouldn’t we care more for the materials of the world than we do? Wouldn’t we spend more time enjoying the material things that we already have rather than mindlessly consuming more? Wouldn’t we place a higher value on each item with which we come into contact, considering where it’s been and where it will end up when we’re finished with it, than thoughtlessly tossing things away as if they never existed in the first place?
A few months ago, I had the privilege of giving a presentation on the do’s and don’ts of Bay Area recycling at a Green Sangha meeting. This was during the “practice discussion” portion of the meeting, “practice” meaning a state of mindful awareness and compassion that Green Sangha members strive to cultivate. At the end of my talk, someone asked me how this information informed my practice. At first, the question took me by surprise. But after a few seconds of thought, I realized that having to consider the proper way to dispose of things forces us to slow down and appreciate, be mindful of, the materials that pass through our hands, the matter that sustains us and also gives us pleasure.
I’ve heard complaints from people when asked to recycle their waste that it’s too hard to remember to do and takes up too much time. My gut feeling is that if having to consider the full lifespan of a product causes us to slow down, then perhaps we’ll be less likely to consume more than we actually need and learn to appreciate what we already have.
I’ve also heard of folks doing “gratitude practice” where they silently thank God or the Universe or Fate or whatever for each thing they encounter as they go through the day. As I’ve said before, I’m not a religious person, my personal feeling being that this amazing physical world that we live in is it for us, so you’d maybe expect me to value the materials of this world. But believers in a Creator of the universe also have every reason to give thanks and to slow down and care for the material pieces of this world as well. After all, if God created them, if they are in fact parts of God, who are we to use and dispose of them recklessly?
My husband Michael, a.k.a. Mr. Linguistics, told me that actually, the word “material” comes from the Latin “mater” meaning “mother.” So instead of meaning selfish overconsumption, the word “materialism” ought to mean care for our mother, our Mother Earth, in fact.
Maybe we can learn to savor the small, seemingly insignificant objects in our lives as if they too mattered. Weight loss programs teach us to slow down while eating and enjoy each bite in order not to overconsume. This is a tricky practice for me. I like to wolf down my meal as much as the next person with “food issues.” But maybe we’d lighten our bodies and also our impact on the earth if we tried to be more materialistic, not less.
Let’s take a breath and consider the paperclip as well as the paper, the cheese wrapper as well as the cheese, the gate hook and also the blister pack in which it was sold, the cat litter as well as the cats, our plastic eye drops container as well as our drops and pain-free eyes, or our filter cartridge in addition to the clean water it provides.
These are all parts of our material world, our mother, our earth. And whether she was designed by a Creator or by random chance, she’s the only one we have. Let’s honor her, and all her trillions of pieces, by considering more and consuming less.