The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

How Will You Grow From It?

It’s just days away from the end of the year. Lots of people are reflecting on what the last twelve months have given us. The movies, the music, the books. The pop culture moments. The politics and historical events. What stood out for you? How are you feeling about 2016?

I lost count of the posts, articles, and conversations I’ve seen talking about how terrible this year was. There’s a lot of pessimism and defeatism in the air.

Without a doubt, 2016 was challenging and disheartening in many ways. From the changing climate of our planet to political BS to deaths of cultural icons to rampant inequality and social friction, these have been some of the darkest months we’ve gone through in some time. I’ve heard more than a few people longing for 2017–as if January 1st will be some kind of reset button.

That New Year’s Day morning may feel a bit different when it comes (hopefully for reasons other than a hangover). But things won’t actually have changed much from the day before. Or from December 30th, or from today. A different year number may give us an important psychological fresh start (are you making resolutions?). In so many ways, though, we’re going to be in much the same place we are now.

And who’s to say what 2017 will be like. The future has a nebulous uncertainty. Not yet visible, not yet formed. It could be a good year. It could be another hard year. We won’t know until we live it.

When times are hard, does that mean it’s a waste? If you’re feeling down about 2016–ready for it be over with–would you rather have skipped right from 2015 to 2017? If 2017 is hard, too, is that then two years wasted? What if those are the last two you have?

Tomorrow is never guaranteed. Some people who are around now won’t see 2017. They’ve been through years of rollercoastering from high highs to low lows, and they’re coming to the end of their ride. If they could go back and do it again–even through the difficult and lame parts–would they? Would you?

As long as we’re still here, we’ve got all of our past behind us and today in front of us. Nothing need be a waste unless we choose to waste it. Whatever happened yesterday or this last year or 10 years ago is an opportunity to grow. To learn. To become stronger. To become more agile. More connected. More whole. More fully human.

No matter the situation, there’s always something to take away from it. A bad movie is a slog to watch, but it might have a great soundtrack you end up listening to over and over. A traffic-filled commute may be a pain in the ass, but perhaps it gives you time you needed to think through some things. A dysfunctional family can be incredibly painful and debilitating, but it can reveal to you all the things not to do in your relationships. An Office Space-like workplace is a dehumanizing struggle, but it may fuel you to give your all to your real passions. A broken political environment makes you wonder how society is going to get any better, and then you realize that it’s going to be largely up to you to make it better. What crack can you fix?

Our past–individually and collectively–is always an opportunity to grow. We break time up into cleanly separated days and years, but really it all flows together. There is everything that came before leading up to now. When you think about the chunk of time we call 2016, what can you take away from it that helps you be a better you? How did you grow in 2016 from 2015? That’s something worth celebrating, however else you feel about the last twelve months. It’s never all hardship.

We can declare yesterday or the last year tough or shitty or wearying, but it’s never a waste. Never something to just toss aside and try to forget about. It’s going to shape the present whether we want it to or not. And we never know how many days or years more we have ahead of us. So we might as well live deep and suck all the marrow out of life. Take everything we’ve experienced and use it to make today something more–for ourselves and the world we live in. Out of everything that has happened this last year–the amazing things, the depressing things, the boring things, and the agonizing things–how will you grow from it?

Presents

After World War I, mass production was on a roll in the United States. Assembly-lines had been vitally used for the production of tanks, planes, ammunition and more. After the war ended, millions of personal goods were able to be produced through the same efficient assembly process. Corporations were worried about overproduction.

Up until that time, the average person bought things primarily on need. Necessity, functionality, and durability. What would happen when nearly every person had all of the things they need? How would stuff continue to be sold if most everyone felt like they had enough?

Business executives realized they would have to transform the way people think in order to keep turning a profit. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers declared, “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire—to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

A new desires-based culture took shape in a short amount of time. An anonymous journalist declared in 1927 that, “a change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” Thanks in large part to the propaganda techniques of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the masses were effectively manipulated into buying things they didn’t need. It’s more subtle than ever. From Bernays to today there has been an active effort on the part of businesses, media, and others to nudge you into fulfilling desires with stuff. This is what keeps the gears of our economy turning.

Black Friday is nearly here. It’s the perfect storm of the tradition of gift-giving during the holidays and modern consumerism. You’ve probably already seen enticing deals over the last few days. In 2015, American holiday retail sales totaled over $626 billion. Whether it’s out of nostalgia, a desire to be generous or seen as generous, a sense of obligation to do what everyone else is, getting a little something for yourself, or otherwise, we all collectively spend an absurd amount of money during the holiday season.

We have allowed too much room for wants in a world of needs. We get nudged from all directions and spend without much pushback or critique. It would be banal to point out the major, persistent human problems that could be fixed with $626 billion. But I’m sure that you can think of a handful. What if we addressed some of those problems instead of keeping the consumerist machine running?

I often wonder how many people have been sucked into maxing out credit cards or the promise of layaway because they feel like there isn’t another choice but to handover hundreds of dollars this time of the year. But after a major recession less than a decade ago, with many people struggling to find full or liveable employment, who has a bank account that can keep up with the desires culture we’re tangled up in?

This holiday season, don’t be a consumer. Be a person. Consumer is too simple and loathsome for the complexity and uniqueness of who you are. The common good is not contingent on buying everyone you know something wrapped in a box with ribbon.

I love Christmas. I will shamelessly bump Christmas music at every opportunity and make and eat all of the holiday treats I can. But this season does not have to be about stuff. What are the wants on the wish list–on yours, your children’s, your significant other’s? Can we maybe indulge fewer of those?

What are the needs around you? Everyone is going through something. Tight finances, health battles, struggling to find reasons to wake up and go out in the world. Sometimes the depth of the holiday season is not the blissful cheer of cookies and carols, but the way you can humbly and simply be there for people.

Perhaps your “gift” to others this season is just to be a better human. Is there someone who could really use you taking them out to coffee and listening for awhile? Can you cook for friends or family? Can you do someone’s chores? If there’s gotta be something wrapped up with a bow, can you figure out a thing they need and will use for awhile?

If that sounds simplistic or boring, it’s likely because we’re so saturated in the culture of consuming. Being a better person is not something you can gift-wrap. Getting people things they need is not as flashy as breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be about the extra–about “packages, boxes, or bags”. When we do holidays right it’s about the people and the moment. The extra is truly extra, and we likely could do without. If you want to show someone this holiday season that you care about them, be sensitive to what they need and come alongside them. Presence, not presents.

You Still Can

Do you ever feel defeated? When doors of opportunity are slammed shut in your face, others knock you down, or you try new things and fail over and over, it’s natural to feel that way. Perhaps even expected. Sure, life can be hard. But does it have to be this hard?

Why is it so difficult for me to lose the weight? Why did that person get the job and I didn’t? How did they catch a break when I’ve been hoping and trying for the same thing forever?

Life is full of whys. It often feels like whoever’s in the control room of the universe fell asleep. Surely things are not all as they are supposed to be. What are they doing up there when all of this stuff is so broken here? Why is this like this? Why does the rug get pulled out from underneath me when I’m trying to do all the right things?

We’ve been asking the whys for a long time, and we will surely continue to do so into the future. Our universe is nearly 14 billion years old and will go on for billions more. If we want big answers about why things are the way they are we’ll have to have big patience. The universe is headed somewhere. But it’s definitely not in a hurry.

In the meantime, I think there is a simple yet fundamental truth we all need to hear on a regular basis: you still can.

You still can.

That door may have been shut in your face. You may have lost 20 pounds and gained it back. You may not have worked your dream job yet. You may not be able to walk or think or carry things the way other people can or the way you used to. But it’s not over.

You still can lose the weight and keep it off. You still can find employment–in an existing business or one that you create–that makes you feel alive and allows you to utilize your abilities. You still can explore, and ask, and learn, and converse, and wonder, and teach, and share, and love…within the changing limitations of your mind and body.

Whatever has happened up to this point does not have to be the final word. Your best days are never only behind you. But until you know and believe that you still can, defeatism is a heavy cloud blocking out a brighter future for you to enjoy.

Believing that you still can is surely easier said than done. It starts with being yourself. In particular, owning who you are and letting go when things don’t go the way you wanted. So things didn’t turn out. Maybe it’s even because you colossally screwed up. How can you learn from that? How can you find the perspective to laugh instead of judging and belittling yourself? Human error can be hilarious. There’s a reason bloopers, outtakes, and funny home videos have been shared for as long as there have been ways to record. It’s not always easy to laugh at your own mistakes and struggles, though.

When you’re feeling defeated or powerless or incapable, you have to remind yourself of what you still can do right now. You may not have been hired for that job, but maybe one of these three others would be a good fit? You may have gained the weight back, but can you cook something more healthful tonight to get back on the right track? You have to start (again) somewhere.

Your body may not allow you to hike miles in mountainous backcountry, but can you take a stroll through the neighborhood or sweat it out on a cardio machine for a little bit? You may not have all the relationships you wish you did, but can you ask him to have coffee with you or cook dinner for her?

Without a doubt, resistance is going to try to trip you up whenever you start getting some traction. We don’t fully know why it’s there, but it definitely is. There will be more doors slammed shut. More setbacks. More false meritocracy that works out in someone else’s favor. More bodily wear and tear that makes it harder to move and think.

You have to show up over and over again. Be gracious to yourself. Get up. This is not the end. You still can.