I awoke this morning thinking about the ways in which I am learning how to be the person I want to be. Having always seen myself a certain way in my mind’s eye, I realize that I have rarely looked like that person outwardly. I thought it was because I didn’t have the right stuff – literally and figuratively. I thought I wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough or good enough. Decades were spent trying to make my outside look as I thought it was supposed to, convinced that if I wore my hair a certain way and chose certain clothes and drove certain cars and shopped at certain stores that other people would come to see me the way I saw me. Despite my efforts, I always felt as though no one really saw me at all, as if I were a bit of a fraud.
The problem with such an approach is simply that material things can never represent a person. Yet, we are bombarded with messages every day that attempt to convince us that things make us who we are, even this Consumer Reports article tells us that, “you are what you drive.” That’s an overt and obvious message, but most are indirect. Television, print, and online ads, as well as the shows and articles they sponsor, contain not-so-subtle product placements and other nods that are very effective at connecting who we are with what we have. If you want to be cool like Matthew McConaughey, you need to drive a Lincoln. If you want to be hip and beautiful, you need big hoop earrings like Alicia Keyes. It is no wonder that we have learned to try to express ourselves through our outward appearance and the material goods we accumulate. These messages have been so effective that we in the west are veritable shopping machines, with packed garages and basements, and a burgeoning multi-billion-dollar personal storage industry as evidence. It is clear that we believe this message that the things we accumulate define us, whether we are aware of it or not.
We are defined by our values, not by our stuff.
Most of you nodded your heads in agreement as you read that statement. We know we are not defined by our stuff, and yet we doubt it. We doubt this so much that we continue to purchase and accumulate stuff, and to alter our outer appearance with new hairstyles and clothing according to the latest trends, and to seek out bargains even though we know that inexpensive goods are not bargains at all but, rather, wares designed to fail that keep us in the purchasing loop. We do not trust the part of our consciousness that knows we are not merely the sum of our stuff. We value our stuff and it defines us, if we let it.
Three years ago, I bought a North Face Tri-Climate Jacket. Over this past winter, while warm and snuggly in my jacket, I went to a store and found myself looking at other coats, engaging in a long conversation with a salesperson about features. When I bought the jacket in 2015, I was making a deliberate, researched, one-time purchase. Depending upon where I lived, I might never have to buy another jacket in my lifetime; in fact, it came with a lifetime guarantee. This was actually one of the top three reasons I bought it, the others being that I was tired of being cold and wet, as all other jackets and coats had left me over the years. The jacket has served me very well. It is a rain shell with a removable fleece liner that zips and loops into place and can be work as a sweater, and a removable hood, and several storage pockets of various sizes. It has so many thoughtful details that I am not sure I know them all even after three years, such as the horizontal chest pocket designed for cell phones or identification, and the various pull-cords to cinch the jacket to block out weather or position the hood so it doesn’t fall over my eyes. I have indeed not been cold or wet a single time that I have worn it. It has survived falls and other conditions without a rip, tear, or snag. It was indeed worth every bit of the $265 investment I made in it in 2015, an amount I had never before nor since spent on a garment, not even a wedding dress. It was a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. Yet, there I was this winter, shopping for jackets. Oh, and I still have some of the other jackets, the ones that don’t keep me warm or dry. I can’t seem to part with them all even though I don’t wear them anymore.
Despite my heightened awareness, despite knowing that I am being programmed to want more stuff, I still fall prey to it. These are powerful forces and they are all around us. Our cell phones, our automobile dashboards, our GPS software, our laptops and tablets, our watches, our televisions, the displays in stores, the signs on corners, the ads in magazines, on radio and podcasts, and on blogs (including mine, because I do not pay for this space, which means that you are subjected to adds at the whim of WordPress), and the snail mail ads that are sometimes the only thing in our mailboxes; absolutely everywhere we turn, we are told to shop, shop, shop. The messages are: you need stuff; you want stuff; stuff will bring you convenience and comfort, which you deserve; stuff will make you better, stronger, healthier, more attractive, more successful; stuff will make you more accepted by others, more cool, more sweet, more lovable; stuff will make you more you.
I have found my truth to be quite the opposite. The reason that no one ever saw me the way I saw myself was because I wasn’t presenting myself; I was presenting a version of me that I thought everyone wanted to see. That’s not to say that I could ever have been accused of being fashionable or trendy; I was always a bit of a fashion disaster despite my best efforts. These ideas about how to be and how to present myself ran deep, affecting the way that I behaved and spoke, not just the way I looked. If I seemed awkward and at times behaved strangely, if I seemed conflicted, it’s because I was. I could not make my outside match my inside and I came to see my inside as unacceptable. After years of hiding that unacceptable self, I lost track of her. But she’s back with a vengeance now, still wearing unfashionable clothes and saying the wrong things louder than ever.
It’s not just me
To some of you, it may seem a little crazy that I am claiming that ads have been at least partially responsible for how I behaved and for how I viewed myself. But I am not alone in this. Our standard for beauty in women is ultra-thinness as seen in the media and advertising, despite the average American woman being five-foot-four-inches and weighing about 165 pounds. Eating disorders are twice as prevalent in western countries as in non-western nations. I’ve never met an American woman that is not at least a little obsessed with her weight and striving to be thin. Women have gotten the message that thinness = beauty = worth. It is so obvious from where these messages come and so confounding that we perpetuate them at the expense of women’s wellness. But I digress.
It is commonplace for people to line up outside stores by the thousands to get a good bargain or to purchase the latest tech gadget. Do you think ads have any influence over their decision to sleep on a sidewalk just to buy something? Do you think that their self-worth might be just a teensy bit tied up in whether they are able to obtain those material goods? Even as some of you sit on your sofa and watch others line up at those stores on the late news on Thanksgiving night, as you pass judgment on them and call them crazy, your cupboards and garages and basements and rented, climate-controlled storage sheds are teeming with your own bargains, all the things you could not live without and with which you cannot part, and which you rarely – if ever – use. The only difference between you and those folks sleeping on the sidewalk at 3:00 am is when and where you did your bargain shopping. We are all influenced by these ads, that’s why there are more and more of them all the time. They are working.
You say it’s just stuff, and that you don’t really place any value on it. You say you know that it’s the people in your life that matter, not the things. Yet you keep shopping instead of saving. You have credit card debt that you accumulated to buy stuff. You fail to see how all that stuff could have paid for your child’s college education if you had lived more modestly and bought only what you actually needed and would use regularly. You besmirch any low-income family that receives public assistance for having as little as a television or an old car, while you have so much stuff that you don’t use that you could outfit an entire apartment for a family of four and never miss those things. When I say “you” I mean me, too. I may be in the process of cleaning up my act and reducing my material possessions, but I was once as oblivious as most folks. The marketers are counting on it.
Clothes do not make the man. A new, fancy car does not mean you are more important or successful than someone else. Unless you do not have a stove, you really do not need three Instant Pots, even if one of them was a gift (sorry, friend, but if the shoe fits). You do not need to have new clothes every season, you can buy good quality clothes that will last and accessorize them differently as the years go by, replacing them when they are worn, not when ads tell you it’s time to shop. Hell, even running shoes may be just a clever marketing gimmick that are totally unnecessary.
A change in perspective
I am not anti-progress or anti-gadget by any stretch; I love my smartphone and my laptop that converts to a tablet and consider them both necessary for living in the modern world. I love my North Face jacket that is so durable and reliable that I will likely never need to buy another. I like my functional and durable Scion xB, even if the brand has been discontinued by Toyota; I plan to drive it until it cannot be driven anymore. I love my Dewalt Drill-Driver that is unquestionably superior to any other such tool I have owned, and which will likely be an heirloom because of its durability. It makes sense to buy quality, lasting products. This is counter-intuitive in our society, but it is what I am doing to combat my own acquisitiveness. Buy one quality, lasting item and don’t buy it again. Don’t buy pretty things unless they are also functional. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Work on modifying my own thinking and behaviors around materialism is ongoing. I am trying to divest myself of more and more stuff, to continually evaluate how I can make wise purchases that last and are kind to the environment. After all, the stuff we no longer need eventually ends up in a landfill here or overseas, and I have contributed plenty to landfills in my life. I would love it if I could reduce my routine waste to all compostable items, but I’m nothing if not a realist and I recognize that this may not happen in my life time. I’m working toward that goal anyhow. Everything I purchase, eat, drink, or use is approached with this awareness.
Most importantly, I am not hiding behind stuff anymore. Since I no longer try to define myself by or through my material goods, you will have to talk to me if you want to know who I am. My car doesn’t really say anything about me, though it may say “cheap” to some. My clothes don’t really make a statement, they just make me presentable. As I have worked to shed my materialism, I have become more confident and less in need of approval from others. I like myself. And it’s got nothing to do with my stuff. But maybe still a little to do with my hair.