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Sean Hyland Column: Consumer or Creator

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By Sean Hyland

I once read a description of our current global consumer economic system which stated that it was essentially an engine to convert raw materials into garbage as efficiently as possible. It’s a pithy sentiment and on reflection, is no less true for its brevity. When one thinks about the endless shipping containers crossing oceans, loaded to the gills with the useless paraphernalia of our modern life such as Nicholas Cage flip sequin pillows, Christmas beard ornaments, or Justin Bieber Duck Tape (yes, they are all real products!) it’s impossible to not be a bit overwhelmed by the grotesque wastefulness of it all, especially since so much of it will be consigned to the landfill in mere months. Our production capabilities and supply chains are incredible for their complexity and efficiency, yet this accomplishment is dampened by the fact that so much of it is deployed to churn out useless, poorly made garbage at an ever increasingly more frantic pace.

            The lynchpin to this global system of production, shipping, resource and labor exploitation, and disposal is consumption, or more accurately stated, the consumer mindset. This mindset must be carefully cultivated from the earliest age by the constant flood of advertisements and stimuli crafted to breed dependence, discontent, and the connection of identity with consumer choice. From a child’s earliest exposure, the message is relentlessly hammered in that you are what you buy. The dependent mental state of the consumer is what keeps the absurdity of the modern economy going as we purchase to fend off boredom, to create the illusion of meaning, to validate our fragile identities, and to fill needs that we never had. Shopping takes on a nearly sacramental nature in the modern age as we submerge our individual selves in the great Market, emerging renewed and abuzz with the transitory excitement of acquisition.

            Not coincidently, the frameworks which gave meaning to the lives of man previous to the consumer age have all been dismantled as meaningful realities. The family and community, religion, tradition, and deep knowledge of and participation in the natural world have been relentlessly subordinated to the ideal of the atomized individualized consumer, freed from every responsibility, and therefore meaning, but that of the monthly credit card bill.  

            The environmental and social ailments that have resulted from the spread of consumer culture across the world are obvious and well documented enough and hardly require elaboration. Underpinning these physical ills, the consumer mindset itself is a more fundamental sickness, a pervasive perversion of our deepest spiritual nature and a subversion of our basic relationship with physical reality.

            In the Book of Genesis it is said that we are created “in the image and likeness of God.” What does that statement mean? Clearly it’s not referring to the physical form of our bodies with two arms, two legs, a nose etc., but to a question of spiritual nature. There is a lot which can be unpacked within that simple statement, but one aspect that I believe is central is our human ability to create. We share with the Divine the creative function, and while we certainly cannot create from nothing we have the incredible ability to conceive of an idea in our mind and then bring that vision into being by the manipulation of our environment and materials. Whether a carving emerging from a block of wood, a cup taking shape from formless clay, or a story becoming fleshed out on the page, we take part in God’s creative mandate when we exercise our gifts.

             This powerful creative impulse is a central feature of our humanity, as is clear from the most cursory reflection. If you give a child paper and crayons or a pile of sticks they will immediately begin creating. Even the most primitive tribal peoples were possessed by the desire to ornament their few belongings, expending large amounts of time to create works of incredible skill and creativity. Though such people of the past faced dangers and adversity that we in the comfort of the modern age can scarcely imagine, their creative fires burned brightly. These people did not see themselves as consumers, but as participants and creators in the world.

            So it is incredible that today, despite our unparalleled technological advancement, we live in a world which greatly discourages the creative impulse, if it’s not actively hostile to it. The dictates of profit trump human flourishing and what is demanded is an uncritical mass to be advertised to. We are expected first and foremost to be a passive audience, to let others do so that we can then purchase for vicarious experience. Art or entertainment is something to be consumed, not participated in or created. Creativity is stamped out of children by filling their minds with television and YouTube, by consuming their every waking hour with school and structured activities, and by a stifling attention to safety at all costs. The resulting people have never had the freedom to explore the world for themselves or the free time to just exist and reflect. So constrained, the creative impulse becomes too often stunted in childhood and is rarely rediscovered in adulthood as habits solidify.

            While the destruction of creativity clearly creates the perfect raw material for a society which demands the dollars of malleable consumers instead of creators who need little, it comes at a steep cost. To keep the hamster wheel of global consumer capitalism endlessly spinning, we have had to discourage some of the most transcendent aspects of our God-given human nature. Denying our innate creative natures, we dull our abilities to truly see the world and to transcend beyond ourselves to the greater reality. I would aver that the person who has known the joys of creativity has experienced, whether knowingly or unknowingly, a small taste of the Divine Nature.

             Consumerism and its attendant state of mind become clearly not just an environmental problem or a social problem, but a spiritual malaise of the highest order, profoundly disordering our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to God. Consumerism seemingly elevates the individual to petty godhood, justifying the wasteful squandering of our natural resources. It enables the denial of our higher nature by appealing to the base law of cultivated endless want. However, the Gospel of Amazon is clearly at odds with the Gospel of Christ, who spoke time and again against putting faith in our worldly possessions. It would be no exaggeration to say that the war against consumerism is not just one against litter or carbon footprint, but a spiritual battle where the forces of mammon seek to reduce us to compliant meat puppets, denying humanity’s God-given nature and refusing to respect the rightfully ordained limits of our natural world.   

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