Culture Tax

A few things came up over and over, during the Clarity exercise.

– Physical objects are vessels that bear abstraction
– Physical objects obscure complexity
– Physical objects last much longer than the states they were acquired to satisfy
– We approach a culture of abundance with a scarcity mindset

One of the consequences of global culture is the abstraction from the most elemental parts of our life, like our food and other energy sources. For many of us (in the West at least) this abstraction has also led to tremendous abundance. Mechanization, technology, and the extreme fungibility power of a shared monetary system, have created a world where, with relative ease, time can be turned into almost any object or service. We spend some time doing something someone else values, we’re given some money for our effort, and then swap that money for a dazzling array of goods and services in a marketplace that is more or less always available. Yet, if I am any indication, we are still largely engaged with this monumental change in our living circumstances from a scarcity perspective.

The Abundance Trap
Physical goods represent past investment and future opportunity, and getting rid of them conjures up the fear of future regret. Thoughts like, but it works fine, or I might need it later and then I’ll have to replace what I already had, emerged over and over as I sorted through the things in my home. Our physical objects become a tangible stand-in for cognitive and emotional security, and the vessels that bear our memories. It is as though our abstract models for synthesizing reality must be anchored in, and buttressed by, the material. We instantiate what we love, the things that matter, in, well, matter. It is an astonishingly literal and straight forward way to surround ourselves with our world view and personal narrative. I actually find it oddly charming, almost childlike for it’s simplicity. But the sweetness in it also seems naive in a modern context of abundance. My fear of being wasteful, led me to actually being wasteful, by accumulating, and keeping, more than I can use.

The reality of my situation is closer to this: I am not going to start cycling anytime soon, and those padded bike shorts I still have from when I was spinning six years ago, can go. And if I do take up biking again, those shorts probably won’t fit anymore, or the spandex will be too deteriorated anyway. AND, it is also insanely easy for me to either purchase new ones, or with a little more effort, get them very cheap or free from a thrift store or freecycle.org. But still, I think, well, it’s always possible… Doubt, particularly the positive doubt that allows our future self redeem to the choices and aspirations of our past self, gives staying power to physical objects that are currently irrelevant. With shows like Hoarders and Storage Wars we have turned the viewing of other’s excess into a commercially viable sport predicated on sanctimony and excitement. And like so much of our media, it reflects what we cherish and revile, what we ourselves do at a scale small enough, that we only dare explore it through the magnified reflection of some one else, safely distant from our actual lives.

Food, my most direct and important energy source, is freighted with complexity and abstraction. What is crucially intimate, is also frighteningly foreign; this is the paradox of our time. I know almost nothing about where my food comes from, who makes it, and whether or not it will be good to eat after a seemingly arbitrary date, stamped on the packaging, has passed. I am being duped into unnecessary waste (and more purchasing) by the manufacturer, or is it actually not safe to eat, or safe, but lousy tasting? I can’t believe how little I really know about my food. Why would dry grains that once served as currency, for heaven’s sake, expire? I store it to the point of waste because it’s easier than using it. I buy Japanese soba noodles to try in a recipe and then let the rest sit in the cabinet for years, because they don’t quite fit with what I normally eat. Globalization and accessibility have made it easy for me to trifle in experiences outside my dominant culture, but the steel gossamer of my own native patterns makes it difficult to see those liaisons through to an honorable conclusion. My life is littered with the wreckage of my love affair with information – the noodles I bought to make a recipe in Gourmet, have outlasted the publication!

We buy in bulk at box stores for convenience and value, but this also obscures our consumption rate. It feels like we use less, and spend less because we don’t have to go through the uncomfortable exchanges of giving away our time and money every time we want another roll of paper towels – and the side effect of that is we don’t live in close contact with the true cost of using them at the rate we do.

The abstract nature of the abundance further divorces us from the relationship between what we do with our time, and how we come to have the trappings around us. I might talk and write about an idea that someone else builds, and someone else buys, and through the magical power of commerce and other people’s labor, have a house full of things I don’t maintain, and food whose origin is a mystery. I have more of everything, but I am distracted and lonely, because I have so little relationship to myriad things that surround me. I am constantly fighting my eagerness to find it in the next shiny object, or tantalizing idea, but I inevitably begin the cycle again, blindly, with the same model that landed me here in the first place. The abundance around me – in my home, in my media, in my schedule – tugs and taps and winks, a million microns of attentional gravity, pulling me into a perpetual now of nothing.

Learned Instinct
As a species, we are terribly impoverished in the realm of instinct. We’re born knowing how to eat, cry and clutch, and nearly everything else has to be learned. When we think of “trusting our instincts” it almost always applies to a personal, subjective experience, and does little to reliably contribute a predictable offering into the world around us, like say a spider’s web, or a bird song. But instinct is awfully useful, and so we do our best to approximate it through social organization: culture is the collective instinct of any given population – a family, a town, a nation, a gender…

Culture is learned, and preserved, through deep repetition and social reinforcement, which is why it is so hard to change – it requires collective practice against the already existing (usually unconscious) pattern. It is often vaguely linked to safety – physical (don’t eat this) or social (don’t say that) – and strongly linked to identity (we do, or don’t do, X). And because it’s also linked to the power structures of any given system, there are painful consequences for dissent, ranging from time-outs to execution. The immediate social and psychological benefits of belonging are so powerful that being counter cultural seems not only like a lot of work, but also dangerous to one’s wellness and security. As the saying goes: One doesn’t sip cyanide just to see what it tastes like.

The dominant population in America is one who has exchanged the cultural identity of their linage for a personal identity of hope. The origin stories of most non-Native Americans start with leaving the culture of their heritage, either willingly (often because things were so bad abandonment was the best option), or by force (because they were dragged away in chains). The American mythos is that of the pain/hope cycle: that merciless combination that drives astounding feats of achievement. Americans, by and large, are gambling on the exchange of a less-than ideal now, for a perpetually better future. This has been an extremely successful model for generating vast amounts of wealth, technological advances, and scientific discoveries, but we’ve mortgaged our humanity along the way. The chafing from our nobly-intentioned sacrifice further drives us to abandon the status quo just as quickly as we can identify it, in the hope that the arrival of the next future will make us happier right now.

Even when we can see our unhappiness, the prospect of trying to step out of this cycle is terrifying. For starters, it produces so much convenience and prosperity; the abundance we’ve created allows for a near frictionless (and presumably infinite) feathering our nests with goods and services that subtly reinforce this pattern. But stickier still is the emotional attachment we have to belonging. As humans, we long to be part of a narrative that is broader and longer than our own. It is very hard to leave the only home you’ve ever know, even when you don’t want to stay there.

The cycle times of these cultural narratives run at a much slower pace than the cycles of our markets. Our stories of sacrifice and improvement enjoy the dual benefits of an early introduction and constant repetition in the way they’re (often silently) enacted around us. Against this behavioral backdrop, quarterly earnings capture our attention over and over, leaving little room to consider the less urgent, but deeply pervasive, patterns that drive most of what we do. We eat the values of the market, and subsequently grow the culture that perpetuates them. If you’re at least third-generation American, you’ve probably got a family story about the Great Depression, and you’ve probably got some personal values that relate to behavior associated with economic hardship, and you are likely enacting those values in a way that also supports the perpetuation of personal abundance. For those of us who have been eclipsed by the abundance we’ve helped create, I offer that it is time to stop refining – and start redefining – the model that creates it. Rather than continuing to look at everything through the same lens, we must consider the lens itself.

America is a culture exquisitely primed to consume connective and information-pushing technologies that feed our cultural instinct for more. It’s no surprise that we have invented so many of them – it’s what we value. And this, in and of itself, might not be so problematic if it were not for the clutter of objects that accompany our frenetic pace of acquisition. In material form, these objects are crippling and overwhelming our environment, and in abstract form they are crippling and overwhelming our human spirits. The impact of object proliferation is finally reaching an impact point painful enough to contend with the painful risks of culture change. Abandoning our cultural narrative of acquisition for a better one would, in fact, be a very American thing to do.

So what, then?
The good news is that if our instincts are learned, they are also mutable. How do we learn in a culture of abundance, to accept the abundance, and shift our attention elsewhere in order to solve more pressing problems, including the problems of abundance? What will we loose by doing this? How do we even think clearly in the din of our economic engine?

One possibility is that our excess will actually allow more of us to live well, by living more simply – but we must choose to do so. In a world where we no longer need to hedge against basic needs that aren’t secure, and put our energy into the attainment of physical goods, we have to retrain ourselves step off the gas, and practice living in the (sometimes uncomfortable) intimacy of our own lives: Cooking our own food, raising our own kids, cleaning our own homes, and actually BEing with the people around us.

Successfully switching to a culture of being, from a culture of doing, requires reducing, among other things, the number of relationships that we claim for intimacy. Americans are loathe to surrender to the limits of their capacity – because it is pleasurable (and mythological) to live in the abstraction layer of abundance afforded us by ubiquitous technology and financial capital, not to mention the righteous fantasy generation of that little meat computer between our ears. It has become so common to do this – it is so culturally supported – it’s difficult to even recognize how dominant it is. Culture is transparent from the inside out, like a one way mirror.

Significant change usually comes from a place of emergency, disgust, or impoverishment; otherwise we’re just not motivated enough to undertake the effort. And it is a lot of effort. Sitting still long enough to discover these things within ourselves, requires patience and tolerance and kindness for oneself – not exactly skills that we get a lot of chance to develop along the way. Class, we will now sit still for an hour and practice recognizing and accepting our fear and self-loathing with loving-kindness…

Our values and intentions are difficult to quantify because the inner experience is so subjective. And we live in a culture that is crazed for quantification because that is how we convert nearly everything into financial currency, so it can go through the abstraction exchange that powers abundance. Americans are some of the hardest working, most creative and driven people in the world, but our cultural narrative is so fixated on expansion and achievement, we trample the development of our humanity in the rush to prove how great we are. We call the normal, second adolescence of adult psychological development a midlife crisis. How did a culture founded by pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, slaves and exiles become so disdainful of questioning the world around us, that is, the one we created? I actually find this heartbreaking.

The world will re-balance itself, to be sure; either through a catastrophic failure (likely in the economy or environment) or through the deliberate work and attention of humans – the same way we got here. I would prefer the latter, but it’s not as attention garnering as cataclysmic disaster. I’m not sure how you give kindness, generosity, compassion, and self-awareness mainstream appeal and commercial viability.

For my part, the best idea I have come up with, is simply to practice in the ordinary context of my ordinary life. Practice is like pulling that loose thread, before you know it, a whole bunch you weren’t expecting is undone. I am learning humility in spades, and pitching fits with every lesson. And I am doing the other, equally small and simple thing I can think of, which is to write. To tell my story, which is a story about being human. The hurt and hope in my pressable flesh, and ethereal spirit, are not so special as I fancy. We need voices of relief, voices that throw contrast against the crystalline instincts of our culture, so that their forms might be seen. Voices that name what’s already slumbering in the hearts of others, so that it might be known to them.