It occurred to me in a restless hour of insomnia that most sins boil down to greed. The many ills we see plaguing our world are borne out of want – a hunger for that which we do not have, but wish to possess, whether it be money, power, material items, reputation, or other humans. Before I step up on a soap box, mount my high horse, or puff up my chest to expound, I turn a critical lens on my own life.
I’ve written before about my own sense of hunger and want. But growing up poor cannot be an excuse for greed and as we go through another consumer season, I am at once chagrined and baffled by the amount of stuff in exchange. My husband is an IT engineer for a large retailer. I am often compulsive in my shopping. I do not look at this from high moral ground. Complicity is not just for politics.
There are times when we, as individuals, get mocked for our minuscule efforts to save the world. Recycling every scrap of paper and tin can, only to see large scale pollution and waste by corporate entities. Buying different light bulbs every five years, because supposedly, the latest ones take less energy and last longer, only to discover that the expensive damned things burn out just as quickly as the old ones. Being “green” becomes its own source of want and consumerism.
If something is small, it might be said, it may not be worth doing. It may just be a way to distract individuals from seeing the large-scale destruction and greed that so many of us benefit from in the short-term, but that consumes and kills everything in its path. Why should we spend our short time on this earth trying to be better, when the bigger picture says that ultimately, we will consume ourselves out of existence?
It’s no coincidence that I write this post on the heels of visiting a mall. At least once a year, my daughter’s orchestra performs in the middle of a mall. Malls baffle and horrify me. Seeing an entire store devoted to pillows (and only one brand at that) or socks is a special kind of bizarre. Walking past store windows, it was hard to gauge what was even being sold, beyond contorted mannequins and maybe a purse.
We walked around the mall and I couldn’t make myself go into a store, knowing that I’d immediately become every old lady ever. Why would someone pay for THAT? Why are there holes in brand new jeans? I could get an entire wardrobe at Target for the price of that shirt. And that shirt is made in the same damn place – Cambodia or Thailand or Pakistan. I wonder what deft little fingers make our clothes and if the building might not collapse on them. Complicit.
I’ve read of people who attempt to be purists. They are inevitably wealthy and can afford to source all their clothing from sheep who live in their own personal spas. They buy $200 light bulbs made out of recycled feces and have 4,000 square feet of solar panels for their tiny house on wheels. Perhaps we mock them out of jealousy – they get to attain a little higher moral ground. But wait – where did their wealth come from? Did they sell more stuff, inherit hoarded monies, engage in unfair business practices, benefit from a system that rewards greed? Complicit.
If we are all guilty and if what we do as individuals in our own households has little effect, why do we torture ourselves trying to be better? Why not admit that we’re bipedal locusts and get on with things without guilt?
This brings me to a different type of greed. I want to be a better person than I am. I want to be respectful of the earth and thoughtful about what I choose to possess. I want to leave something of natural beauty to those who follow behind me. But mostly, I want to define my life not through constant desire and greed, but through kindness and respect and an ability to sit with what I have and be at peace.
Greed inculcates violence. Whether it be taking something by force or getting something at the expense of others or the planet, it is an inherently violent trait. We see what kind of people use greed as their defining trait – from corrupt politicians who seek power and financial gain, to narcissistic fundamentalists of any ilk who seek to make the world in their image alone – greed for a mirror’s reflection. These people poison everything around them. Many of them have poor relationships with other humans, are detached from the true wonder and beauty of the natural world, and spend their considerable talent in pursuit of more for themselves, instead of bettering the world around them.
I don’t have the luxury or the grandiosity of those extremes, but I can see how greed and want and consumerism can be damaging to those around me, to the natural world, to my own character, to the way I spend my very short life. I’m over the halfway point at best. I’ve spent 50 years on this planet trying to earn more money, to have more freedom and choices through that money. I’ve been generous with friends and family and charities. But I’ve exchanged one sort of freedom for another. I’m more complicit than I want to be in the destruction of this planet.
So the question is, how hard do I want to try? This choice, this evaluation, is a luxury in itself. If you’re just getting by, you don’t spend a lot of time sourcing where your stuff comes from. You don’t weigh getting the $2 versus the $8 light bulb. But here I am, with the choices I’ve worked my whole life to have, in a system that rewards me for making greedy choices. It doesn’t let me off the hook to say it won’t make a difference. If I have the power and luxury of choices, I’m responsible for making better ones, even if they may not save the world.