Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Buying into status

One of the biggest challenges to our overcoming materialism and our dependency on our possessions, is the problem of our purchase of status goods, items we purchase to demonstrate our social position to the world around us. Each culture and age had or has its status goods, whether they be a string of beads or $250,000 Porsche. We are so immersed in this code of status that we are hardly aware, most of the time, that our purchase decisions are governed not by quality or price, but by how our neighbors will view us.

In extreme cases, our dependency on material goods can affect our relationships with our family and friends and can even destroy our happiness and enjoyment of life. The huge overhanging credit card debt in the U.S. is only one symptom of this dependency.

This fixation on status extends to every level of our material cultural lives; from our cars and boats to our living room furniture, from our shirts and pants to the kind of watches and jewelry we wear. We also establish our status by the types of activities we participate in. How many of you know someone who "just returned from a trip to ... [name the location]. To the extent that we allow status and cultural "norms" to determine what and who we are and what we buy, we are slaves to materialism.

It is sadly true that our social class can be accurately inferred from the inventory of products we own. This was early recognized by studies by Francis Stuart Chapin a t the University of Minnesota beginning in the 1920s. See also Schor, Juliet, Sut Jhally, and Loretta Alper. The overspent American why we want what we don't need. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2003 at page 35.

In order to break out of this pervasive system, we must first recognize our dependency on our material goods. We can only begin to make purchasing decisions based on our needs, if we recognize the difference between our needs and our wants and further, recognize the role material goods play in the perception we have of ourselves and our status in society. If we do not realize our addiction to status producing material goods, perhaps we need to go through the classic 12 Step program for addicts:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over our material purchases—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
This program was designed for alcoholics but it will work for those who cannot control their purchases also. We all know someone whose buying habits we consider to be out of control, but how many of us recognize those tendencies in ourselves. If we would be prepared for tomorrow's coming hard times, we need to overcome our bad spending habits today.

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