Every year, we take this picture.
It’s late on Christmas Eve after the fat man has gone and the last bike has been assembled. We are exhausted, ready to tumble into bed. But before we do, we take a snapshot of the finished product.
It’s usually impossible to fit it all into one frame. The loot spills across the floor, covers couches and chairs. A sea of Barbie dolls and remote-control cars, athletic shoes and video games.
I used to like that picture. I’d look at myself or my wife standing before that bounty and I’d feel the distinctly masculine pride of the provider who has once again provided.
But lately, that picture fills me less with pride than with a wistful melancholy. I say to myself: My goodness, look at all that stuff. Stuff that three weeks ago filled Christmas lists and dreams. Stuff whose whereabouts children won’t be able to tell you three weeks from now. Stuff.
The lament is not – at least, not solely – about the secularization of a Christian holy day or the gaping distance between children of poverty and those of plenty. Truth to tell, what really gets me is the stuff itself, the fact that no matter how much of it you acquire, you’re never sated. There’s always something new or next to buy. We run a race with no finish line, play a ballgame with no final buzzer. It’s never over.
John De Graaf would call that condition “affluenza.” It’s a word that refers to the “disease” of affluence, of empty consumerism gone wild. The veteran television producer has done two PBS documentaries and co-authored a book (“Affluenza”) on the subject.
His cure for the “illness” is simplicity itself. Literally. De Graaf, who lives in Seattle, is a prime mover in what’s called the simplicity movement, a grass-roots effort to get Americans to cut back on the stuff that clutters their lives. It encourages us to ask if we really need those $200 athletic shoes or that DVD burner. Or have we simply been convinced that we need them by a commercial culture that does not always fight fair?
As in the marketing meeting he captured in one of his documentaries. “Without any embarrassment,” he says, “they used terms like “owning,’ “capturing,’ “branding’ children. They talked about how to stir up in kids these anti-parent attitudes in order for them to want to get around parents” by nagging them into surrender.
Many years ago, says De Graaf, he worked on a Navajo Indian Reservation where the average ANNUAL income was $600. Yet, the kids seemed never to be bored. Always seemed to find ways to amuse themselves. Then De Graaf came home for Christmas to a younger brother who kept complaining that he had nothing to do, even though his room looked like an explosion at a Toys “R’ Us. It was an awakening.
De Graaf sees affluenza in environmental, business, labor and quality-of-life dimensions. For me, though, the most alarming thing about affluenza is its effect on the spirit.
If life is a search for wholeness, then that search must by definition be at odds with consumer culture. The advertiser’s job, after all, is to make us feel unwhole, incomplete, until we own his or her product.
“You gotta go shopping!” says one ad.
“It’s all inside,” promises another.
Acquisition becomes an end unto itself. Some people go to malls looking for no particular product. They go, they say, because it makes them feel good. The mall becomes the church of consumerism, the purchase an act of sacrament.
We breathe, therefore we buy. But somehow, we can never buy enough to feel whole.
Every Christmas morning the camera flashes, freezing in time a sea of plastic things and shiny boxes bought to bring happiness. And you wonder if this is not, in the end, the very antithesis of prosperity. Maybe wealth begins the day you are finally able to want what you have. Finally manage to say something none of us, rich or poor, ever seem able to say.
I have enough. I don’t need anything more than this.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]