They really don't look happy, most of them. Looking at the myriad faces that pass me by, I see stress, anxiety, fear, worry, boredom, anger, depression, emptiness ... but seldom joy and peace.
Wave upon wave, they flow into the store and back out again, this tide of consumers, wiping shelves clean of superfluous junk product manufactured on the other side of the globe to flood already inundated homes.
It appears more like duty, really, yet this is a retail store that offers not one ~ no, not even one ~ basic life necessity. And here they spend hundreds and thousands of dollars as if in answer to some divine obligation or, worse, under an almost demonic compulsion... And they don't look happy.
We don't look happy, either, but are really none the worse in appearance than most employees in most retail stores, and most fast food restaraunts, movie theaters, gas stations and plenty of other businesses, for that matter.
Of course, we don't create or really even produce; we don't save or enhance lives. We barely think. Instead, we feed an insatiable, reckless, mindless appetite ... both that of others and, ultimately, our own.
We are sick, all of us, and yet we thrive upon the very sickness that's killing us. Like poison coursing through our veins, it will be fatal, but the cure, if we even wanted it, would by now probably mean death, too.
Indeed, the Tao Te Ching is prophetic in warning, "There is no crime greater than having too many desires; there is no disaster greater than not being content; there is no misfortune greater than being covetous."
But our whole way of life is built upon and infused by greed and gluttony. We produce to consume, consume to produce, and measure prosperity by this production and consumption without any reference (other than empty rhetoric, perhaps, to make ourselves feel better) to any "higher" purpose and very little regard for lasting quality.
This production and consumption is a vicious, insane cycle fueled by unscrupulous advertisements luring and exciting people into purchasing more and more goods and services that are, in a final (and honest) analysis, unnecessary but now quite desirable. Greed has been transformed into, if not quite a virtue, then at least a shameless fact of life; grasping and self-centered indulgence seem to be its only satisfaction.
It is what has come to be called "consumerism," almost exclusively emphasizing unabashed and unabated consumption as the basis for our whole social and economic system. But again, this is simply avarice and gluttony underneath a more acceptable, academic-sounding term.
As such, the selling of goods and products in massive quantities becomes an act of life-and-death desperation. Continuous production is followed, of course, by continuous consumption. In the process, quality is often, if not always, the unfortunate sacrificial victim (whether that is overtly stated by companies and businesses or not).
In this sort of social economic environment, the consumer must not, after all, purchase any item that "endures the test of time" because continuous, mass production is completely dependent upon there being continuous demand. This means products must, as a fundamental economic necessity, wear down and die, lose practical usefulness, become unpopular or whatnot all to be replaced with other, newer product.
And should some ingenuous man invent something genuinely useful, valuable and lasting, then, of course, that invention must never "see the light of day." Who knows, but it might bring the whole consumeristic system crashing down around us! And, too, common workers must never be allowed to take the quality of their work ~ building, manufacturing, repairing, etc. ~ too seriously for the very same reason.
The result of this is not only the purposeful degradation of quality but also the impairment of creativity and healthy, soul-satisfying work. It has led to an unbelievable kind of spiritual and intellectual paralysis throughout the world over and especially in our own country. It is more than simply an economic matter, you see; it has affected (or, perhaps, infected would be more appropriate) almost every area of life.
The value of life is inseparably joined to physical well-being, wealth and material possessions, which is nothing more nor less than gross materialism. This stands to reason, since if the whole system is based on consumption, then this outlook upon life is ostensibly the most conducive to economic prosperity. Heaven forbid someone say, "Wait! I don't need this!"
No, it doesn't matter whether or not you really need it; you want it and so you should buy it, and if you cannot, the denial is almost unbearable. Thus, fulfillment of desire ~ wish-fulfillment ~ is made practically synonymous with necessity. "I really need this," may actually mean, "I really want this," but now there is very little difference.
In the words of the famous psychologist, Eric Fromm, however, this is "a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction." Touche! We see this everyday in the troubled eyes and distorted expressions of millions of consumers as they push down the aisles with shopping carts loaded and swipe their plastic to once again forestall paying what they cannot afford in the first place.
But as someone shrewdly pointed out not long ago, "Much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life." No wonder we're not happy. This is an empty life because it is a cheapened life. This is an empty life because it is largely a pointless life without purpose, a life of impoverished vitality and spiritual depression.
"Life" may not even be an appropriate word to use for description; this is an existence filled with convenience stores and artificial sweetners, lotteries and movies-on-demand, and an "idiot's guide" to almost every conceivable subject because, though we may not all quite be idiots, we certainly don't have time to devout to serious study.
This is mere existence in which we have standardized "achievement" tests and schools that teach to those tests, in effect making everything else non-essential, kind of like an assembly line churning out the maximum number of product at minimum standards of quality. And over all this we drap a thin veneer of religion that offers little more than miracle bubbles, cartoon Bible stories and cheap, plastic "Jesus Loves You" Easter eggs.
And into this vacuous, pretend-life we pour more and more stuff; we consume. And we are told to consume, and to work and play, too, of course. But above all, we need more and more stuff, and we need it quickly and cheaply while make-believing we're getting really great stuff at really great bargains, and that all this stuff is part and parcel of living "the good life."
This is America, and this is what it means to be American, and we're really lucky (or blessed, if you want to sprinkle the idea with a bit of innocuous spirituality) to live here and have all this stuff available ... and isn't it a pity so many people throughout the world don't have as much stuff as we have and the means to buy it and the freedom to enjoy it all?
But we're not happy.
Every vice has its virtue, though, and every virtue its blessing. Just ask the fifth century monk, Arsenius. After abandoning life in the imperial court of Constantinople, he determined to live a holy life in the deserts of Egypt ~ quite austere to be sure. Yet whenever he visited the great city of Alexandria, it is said he spent time wandering through its bazaars. Asked why, Arsenius reportedly explained that his heart rejoiced at the sight of all the things he did not need.
One can only imagine how exuberant he would be walking through some typical 21st century American "bazaar!" Doubtless, if I saw his face among the herd of consumers passing by, I would not very likely see stress, anxiety, fear, anger, depression or emptiness; no pain to deaden with any cheap anesthetic, no bottomless pit to frantically fill ... again and again and over again.