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On Materialism

It is what it is. If the shoe fits, wear it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. A rose by any other name….

Our language is peppered with such phrases that urge authenticity. Perhaps Shakespeare said it most eloquently (Hamlet, I,3, 564-566) with

This above all--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

On the one hand, political correctness would have us find the least offensive words to describe one another—pleasantly plump, not fat. On the other hand, and particularly today in an era of alternative facts and fake news, critical thinking demands that we describe the world as accurately as possible, in order that we might make the most effective decisions.

shoes of markos

Imelda Marcos Shoe Museum. Manila, The Philippines.

So, I have a problem with one of our assessments—the WorkPlace Values Profile™ (for a free tryout, ask at info@centacs.com) . This profile measures the relative importance of 16 values for an individual—things like Power, Beauty, and Relationships. My problem—one of tact vs. truth—is with Materialism, one of our 16 values. Many people just don’t like being associated with that word, in spite of answering relevant questions in support of materialism:

 

  • Having possessions that are the envy of others
  • Having really nice things around me
  • Being able to shop at the finer stores or other venues
  • Maximizing the amount of luxury in my life
  • Being seen in settings that are fashionable

When someone’s answers endorse these items, they get a high score on Materialism. Too many clients have told me that they squirmed when they saw their high score, saying “I’m not really that materialistic!” In processing their results, we review how they answered each question, yet they wouldn’t change their answers. “Compared to others,” I then say, “you are more materialistic than the norm.” That is what these statements define—materialism is an emphasis on having nice things, shopping at finer venues, maximizing luxury, being fashionable, having possessions. While they may also have high scores on values such as Relationships, Helping, or Intellect, it is as though many people feel like the materialistic label overshadows their other values, that being seen as materialistic negates other values. You can’t be true to two, they feel. You can’t value Intellect and be Materialistic. The appellation of materialistic seems to taint its bedfellows—guilt by association.

Just as “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), there something that many people don’t like when they are described as “materialistic.” Materialism is both a philosophical and an everyday term. In philosophy, a materialist asserts that nothing exists beside the observable, physical world. As an everyday word, a materialistic person typically describes someone who values things, especially nice things. A materialistic person in the everyday sense could also exhibit other values, such as Relationships, Spirituality, and Intellect, that might appear to be the opposite of Materialism. The often-thought opposites of Spiritualism and Materialism were conjoined in the Rev. Jim Bakker’s dictum that “God doesn’t like junk.” Monks are examples of non-materialistic spiritualists. Bakker was a materialistic spiritualist, with his gold-plated bathroom faucets.

I should say that I do see Materialism as neither a good nor a bad value. Like any other value, it can be used for good or ill. Some materialists set standards that are motivating to others, while other materialists exhibit a greed that crushes motivation. Some of my best friends are materialistic! I had a colleague once who chided me upon hearing that I was headed for Europe one summer. “I wish I had that kind of money.” “You do,” I quipped, “but you spent it on a Cadillac. I drive a VW beetle! And, I go to Europe on the difference in price.” Desire for Status drove his Materialism to have things that made others envious. My desire for intellectual stimulation took the same money and applied to travel and books.

I have searched thesauri for synonyms that would be more neutral/less offensive—worldliness, acquisitiveness, object-orientation, possessiveness, physicalism, greediness. None quite worked. One that I did like—materiality—has a fixed meaning in auditing—small discrepancies are immaterial, while large ones are material, or show materiality. I think “materiality” is the best of the words I’ve considered—the most neutral. “Materiality” suggests that something is way out of line—an egregious mistake, intentional or otherwise. Should I not be concerned about this special meaning of a word that otherwise is the most objective way of saying “Materialism”?

What do you think? Should I/we keep using “materialism” and shrug at complaints, saying, “Hey, a rose is a rose is a rose….” Or should we replace it with “materiality”? Or something else?

Having and Wanting

October 30, 2015 1 comment

While I cannot find the source for this research, the point it makes is worth sharing.

Mental attitudes—mind over matter, thinking positively, reframing, putting a spin on things, looking for the silver lining, deciding to let go of a loss—some are easier to manage than others. I remember the first time I sent a book manuscript to my editor in Texas. It was returned with page after page of “queries,” a polite word for corrections and challenges. My first reaction pictured her as a malevolent high school English teacher determined to crush my ego with red ink. I wanted to quit. But something told me to reframe the situation—she was not my critic, but my teammate. Together we could make something stronger than either of us could alone. So rather than be bummed by her markings, I made a game of it. With future submissions to her, I tried to learn from her past corrections and anticipate how she might react to my new material. My goal was to minimize her queries. With that change in mental attitude, I have gone on to work with four additional editors on twelve different books. And to think I almost quit!

This recent research (whose source I can’t put my hands on) about mental attitudes and well-being found that two mental attitudes are associated with a higher sense of well-being:

  • “I want what I have.”
  • “I have what I want.”

Here are some personal examples of “I want what I have”:

  • I have a temperament that is uncomfortable around crowds and noises, and I have no desire to be any different—I don’t want to learn to enjoy noisy crowds (i.e., I like/want my quiet).
  • I have a lower-priced sedan that is safe and durable, and that is fine—I don’t dream about a more expensive car with more features.
  • I have a 3’ x 6’ N-scale model railroad to enjoy with my grandchildren (and any other children of all ages), and I have no need or desire for a larger layout.

And here are examples of “I have what I want.”

  • I wanted both children and grandchildren, and I have them.
  • I wanted a collection of early musical instruments, and I have them.
  • I wanted a laptop computer that would enable me to work anywhere, and I have it.

The research suggests that such attitudes promote a sense of well-being. They contrast with two attitudes that add nothingi want more to one’s sense of well-being:

  • “I want something that I don’t have.”
  • “I have something that I don’t want.”

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I have tried to minimize wanting something that I don’t have. Therefore, the three things that I will list are things that I have wanted in the past, but that I have decided that I no longer want:

  • I want(ed) a getaway cabin in the mountains.
  • I want(ed) to have less of a temper, i.e., to have a slower trigger.
  • I want(ed) a child or grandchild with whom I can play duets.

So, I have abandoned these three desires—for different reasons. The cabin, because 1) I have read that having a vacation home provides no boost to happiness, and 2) Jane and I like variety, so retreating to different locales has a stronger appeal than feeling that we have to go repeatedly to the same place to justify the investment. The temper, because I couldn’t change myself short of a pre-frontal lobotomy—but I’ve learned to avoid situations that trigger it, such as deadlines (I typically give myself false, early deadlines, so I don’t run up against the real ones). The musical kids because they just did not turn out to be musicians! And, as Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.”

Finally, three things that I have that I don’t want:

  • I have a lovely spiral staircase when I (we) should have no stairs at all (knees, back).
  • I have a yard that is more of a burden than a pleasure or source of pride.
  • I have a balalaika (3-stringed Russian musical instrument) that I have never learned to play nor have I maintained it properly (cleaning, and so forth).

We tried to address the first two items in 2008 by trying to sell our house and move into a condominium. Then the economy tanked—dream deferred, but still a dream. The balalaika, I would love to find a home for.

But there is something a little too neat and comfy about these mental attitudes. I like the idea, and it does make sense. But how does this outlook relate to the need for one to have goals in life? Does it mean, for example, that to have a Bucket List best things aren't thingsis a drag? One thing I want to do that I haven’t done is to create a multi-media show based on music and art that have been set to Psalm 150. Ah! There’s the difference. Doing something is different from having something! Just as the research shows that money spent on possessions is less satisfying than money spent on experiences, so having a list of things to do is different than having a list of things to have. In addition, the research shows that having goals are important, but that making progress towards those goals is more important than the goals themselves. Having a goal without making progress is like wanting something that you do not have. To have a goal and make no progress is a bummer. I have begun my multi-media treatment of Psalm 150—it’ll take a while, but it’ll get done. Making progress on a goal is like having it. There are a LOT of things on my Bucket List, and they are things I don’t have that I want. No, not things—experiences. Things I want to do, not to have, and I am slowly checking off one experience after another on my bucket list. One of these days Psalm 150 will be checked off.