“Purchasing Power” Mark Harris – January 29, 2006
“Purchasing Power” Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 29, 2006
Opening Words – from “Compensation” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is no tax on the good of virtue, for that is the incoming of God, or absolute existence, without any comparative. Material good has its tax, and if it came without desert or sweat, has no root in me, and the next wind will blow it away. But all the good of nature is the soul’s, and may be had if paid for in nature’s lawful coin, that is, by labor which the head and the heart allow. I no longer wish to meet a good I do not earn, for example to find a pot of buried gold, knowing that it brings with it new burdens. I do not wish more external goods – neither possessions, nor honors, nor powers, nor persons. The gain is apparent; the tax is certain. But there is no tax on the knowledge that the compensation exists and that it is not desirable to dig up treasure. Herein I rejoice with a serene eternal peace. I contract the boundaries of possible mischief. I learn the wisdom of St. Bernard — “Nothing can work me damage except myself; the harm that I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault.”
Friday morning I was driving home after dropping my son Dana off at school. Every day I come down Trapelo Road, and turn past a Mobil gas station heading towards Watertown. There is a large sign out front of the station imploring “What Cars Crave?” The expected answer is printed below: “Quality Fuels.” While this answer seems innocuous enough, what struck me about the sign was the personification of the automobile to imply that my car could actually crave something as an object of desire. While not one to question the limits of computer technology the personification of material objects seems typical in a culture where everything is commodified, so it follows that commodities would take on human characteristics to blur the distinctions between what is for sale and what is not. Maybe the car wants to be painted a different color or be kept warm in the winter. My friends in high school always tried to name the cars I drove – Green monster, the Limited, which must have hurt its feelings about its potential, and then the slight twist on Grand Prix, to become . . . well, you get it.
Automobiles have tremendous symbolic value in our culture. Watching television its seems like 95% of the advertising is for cars or drugs. Cars are often sold by framing the commercial with some hit rock n roll song from our youth, echoing bands like The Who, “I’m Free,” and “Freedom tastes of reality.” That’s a powerful message because much of the advertising is about how to attain personal freedom from all the strains of work and family. Get away from it all and escape in the latest model. The big car will give you power, and the fast car will lead to this freedom, and then of course there is always a scantily attired young woman draped over the vehicle as well. Even if the vehicle is not alive, the message is that it can make you more alive than you have ever been; strong, attractive and virile if you buy this item. Cars have always carried this symbolic weight. My oldest brother wanted to have the fastest, coolest car in town. He spent hours and hours shining up his four on the floor, white, Ford Starliner convertible. He took it to the drag races, and tried to make it the fastest. He buffed it to make it the prettiest. It was something he could brag about and flaunt as an object of ultimate desire at least in the mind of a sixteen year. It was fast, sleek and attracted the girls. What more could you want?
Cars are perhaps the ultimate example of the consumerism and freedom that characterize our culture. They possess all the qualities that seem to guarantee personal fulfillment – they show we are rich, fashionable and desirable. Perhaps it is appropriate that this sermon is an auction sermon. I have been bought so that I can advise you spiritually how not to become bought. Kyle Hart is responsible for today’s topic. Kyle is concerned about how our culture markets items to convince us that our inner needs will be met if we purchase certain things, like these slick cars. The key problem with this consumerism is that we only seem to listen when someone appeals to our own needs, and further that the idea is for us to feel good about our self-indulgence. Marketing, consumerism and commodification is something that has become endemic to every aspect of our culture. Advertisers today know what we like, what we have bought before, and what might appeal to us in the future. They are able to appeal to individual emotional needs through something called narrow casting. We are also being bombarded everywhere we go, as exemplified by our own Paul Day’s attempt to protest the use of television sets at every grocery store. You cannot go through the line and buy a gallon of milk without getting the latest advice on what to buy in order to create the perfect home.
We all know that advertisers are trying to convince us to buy more and more. The upside of that is that we are becoming more discerning shoppers. We try to avoid the bombardment by using video recorders, but the advertisers have responded to this by making the ads part of the program. All of our sports stadiums have corporate sponsors, so it will probably soon be the Coca-Cola Fenway Park, but even the shows themselves become commercials, so that characters work for particular companies, as a way of promoting that product. You simply cannot escape. While the information they possess about every one of us helps them target each of us as consumers, from New Age crystals to handguns, the real goal is to make us feel an emotional attachment. They want to know that I love Heinz ketchup so much, I will never give it up, no matter what. This kind of passion for consumer items is shown in the wonderful passage from The Great Gatsby, where Daisy weeps over his shirts because they are so beautiful. Her complete emotional connection to the consumer item reflects how the consumerism has become a religion. Jay McDaniel, who has written, The Ten Temptations of Consumerism says the dominant religion of our planet is consumerism. God is our economic growth, and CEO’s are our priests. The evangelists are these very advertisers who convince us that we cannot be happy or fulfilled unless we have their product. The church is the mall, now open on Sunday for our emotional satisfaction. But what price do we pay by having it all? This religion tells us that everything is a commodity. It is all about personal consumption. What will that kind of religion ultimately do to our souls?
In his introduction to his essay “Compensation,” Emerson writes a poem which states, “In changing moon, in tidal wave, Glows the feud of want and have.” He remarked on hearing a preacher speak about compensation coming in the after life in heaven for those who live a virtuous life now. This is for those poor and despised saints who resist worldly temptations. The preacher said that the good seem miserable in the present because they eschew such sinful luxuries as accumulation of goods, property, wine, fancy dress and houses. Emerson notices something is wrong with this picture. These sinners are having a darn good time, and the preacher is merely saying that the good people will be rewarded later on, with a ticket to heaven. The implication is the bad people can sin now, but will pay for it later, and the good people can sin later. We would sin now, if we could, but we are saving ourselves for heaven. Emerson contradicts the preacher by asking what really constitutes success? Why should we concede that the bad ones are the successful ones, and what is the personal price of this definition of success? With compensation, Emerson would argue that there is a balance in life, and that we must find a balance in our lives in order to access this spiritual wholeness now. He realizes that what we gain in power is lost in time, and the converse. For everything you gain, you also lose. The farmer for instance may imagine that power and place are fine things to desire, but he also knows that the President has paid dear for his White House.
Emerson realizes there is a terrible price to be paid for those who separate the good from the tax. This separation destroys the soul, for the person can have the brag on his or her lips without regard for the condition of the soul. In essence the person becomes infected because they cease to see God whole in each object, so we can see the sensual allure of an object, but not see the sensual hurt that might result from its use or abuse. He writes, “he sees the mermaid’s head, but not the dragon’s tail.” He comes to believe that what he has will not effect the rest of him. In Emerson’s days the full appreciation of the wholeness of compensation might be the wooden chair that was hand made by the Shakers, where this religious sect believed that a piece of God inhabited each article. Theologically, this also informed Emerson’s understanding that the divine was indwelling in everything, and when we begin to separate the sacred from the profane, then we are able to believe that the chair is good in and of itself, and it is good to accumulate as many as we want, without understanding that soul is lost in more accumulation. With acquisition there is no law of compensation. There is only more acquiring, and balance is lost. The other aspect of this is that the loss of balance in sensual allurement is the potential harm to others that we fail to see by separating ourselves from the law of compensation. Do others have a chair, or how is that chair being produced and by whom? Who is being hurt in our country by being unemployed, and who is being exploited elsewhere with poor working conditions? We often ask that question today when so many of our goods are being produced in China.
Should we boycott Wal-Mart?
The fundamental question is how can we maintain and develop any kind of spiritual wholeness when this consumer culture is all pervading. We even fall into this verbiage when we talk about the extension of our own faith, which historically has a strong strain of individualism freedom and self-fulfillment. Religious leaders often believe that finding ways to market the faith to consumers is an effective way to attract new members. Even in terms of our own growth we talk about what programs will appeal to the individual tastes and needs of certain groups, and thereby lose any sense of vision for the whole church and its mission in the world because we are only focused what will attract people in response to their personal needs. Perhaps some of this cannot be avoided, but there are some ways we can achieve the balance of compensation that Emerson speaks of.
Emerson says the preacher implied that the one who follows his/her desires is successful and enjoys life now, but will suffer later on. Emerson believes this is erroneous because he knows from his own experience that one who enjoys too much will pay for it, but conversely we also know it is true that completely sublimating our desires destroys natural human wants and needs. The ascetic who decides that spiritual fulfillment is found by never enjoying life perverts what is good and fruitful about life. We are created as sexual beings, as beings of desire, as being of laughter and joy, as social beings who are made to find engagement and meaning through conversation and emotional attachments to others. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” It is natural for us to want food, love, community, affirmation and compassion from others. Denying ourselves the fulfillment of all desires would mean that we also would become beings who lack any joie de vivre. Of course advertisers in our culture know this about us, and play to our weaknesses. We do desire things.
While we have said it is natural to have desires, and it is good to act on some of them so that we might enjoy life and its bounty, we also know that these desires can destroy us in many different ways. Our desire for food , if not moderated, can result in obesity and ultimately we lose our good health. Like any desire it must be brought under control, and so we place limits on our desire for unbounded freedom. There must be compensation, Emerson might say, for the natural desire to eat food. You must balance this desire with other desires – a long life, exercise, feeling good, or even the desire to look attractive to others. Perhaps your long term desire is fame or to be a famous sports star or singer. Then you have other desires to help you achieve that ultimate desire. Your smaller desires like singing lessons or a quality baseball glove are the tools to help you achieve your lifelong desire. Again Emerson reminds us that any desire has its price in the soul. Where is the balance found, and do you destroy yourself or others in the pursuit of this desire? What we come to realize is that any desire must be managed. I have a friend whose son’s desire to be an Olympic skater became the chosen obsession of the entire family. Unfortunately the focus on that one desire made the family lose track of what was best for everyone, and that the sacrifices of the other children and the parents were too much for the balance of the family and its emotional health. They are no longer together. It is difficult because the power of our emotions to have what we want or seem capable of achieving are powerful. But what is the price? Here reason and balance must be implemented. What serves everyone’s desires? This is why the Buddha advised a middle path in life. You cannot just go wild in response to your desires, but neither can you take the life out of yourself and be an ascetic. We are advised to seek moderation in all things, the law of compensation.
We also need to know when we seek moderation for ourselves, where the balance is for ourselves and our needs. One things advertisers are attempting to do with emotional attachments is to foster our self- identity as tied to the product. I remember feeling some of this when I was determined to buy only small foreign cars. My identity was tied to an kind of anti-Americanism that rejected the culture of gas guzzling, poorly built cars. My goal was to save America from itself through the purchase of Subarus and Hondas. The danger is believing that this is the product that makes me whole or what gives me meaning in life. In the reading from The End of Suffering, Pankaj Mishra talks about the personal transformation that is required of us. Of course those former foreign cars have become our American cars, and now big and fast is our standard once more. I own a Ford. We cannot transform our economic or political system by what we own. We must maintain our freedom of conscience under this system, and live a moral and political life. The task “is not so much of achieving regime change as of resisting ‘the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power. This power takes the form of advertising, consumption and technology. We must free ourselves from it as much as we can. We cannot smash the mirror, but we can live more simply and less competitively. This comes back to making personal, moral choices to find a balance in our lives. We balance all the stuff with open spaces, the desires with the sublimation.
Everyone in this room knows that our culture tries to convince us that there is always something more to want, and that these desires need to be fed by purchasing what we want, and this in turn will make us fulfilled people. We know immediately that one thing wrong with this picture is that it is an endless treadmill of desire. We can never be fulfilled because there is always more to want. Emerson has already reminded us that too much buying of objects put us out of balance emotionally and spiritually. While the advertising tells us we have to have one of everything, we know that we do not need all this stuff. And then the advertiser simply invent new needs that are purported to simplify our lives, but actually make them more complicated because they give us endless choices, and still invent more needs for more choices and so on. Fulfilling all these desires may drive us beyond distraction to a realization that we must find Emerson’s balance again. Each of us might ask ourselves, what do we need? When is too much accumulation too much? Do I need this much? Could I give some away? Why is no one ever taught to sacrifice anything? For many of us giving up something to get some other desire fulfilled was an important lesson in life. Sacrifice by those who have too much can also mean some for those who have none. What is it doing to my soul to have all these things? We want to enjoy life and fulfill certain desires, but when do lose sight of how much more stuff makes us more isolated from ourselves and others? When is it becoming a protective cover for an emotional gap we feel? When does it become our meaning in life?
We can say that the consumer religion becomes a substitute religion for many. While it is true that these objects may become the objects of our time and devotion, and we may lose sight of time spent with others or time alone, the greatest danger is that we would see this religion as an object to fulfill our personal desires. When we talk about Unitarian Universalism trying to fulfill the personal needs of people with programs that fit their profile, then it becomes a matter of how we can sell this religion to you. This is especially dangerous with our liberal faith because it tends to be based on you picking out the elements of faith that fit you. You can tailor make this religion to just give you what you want, and you can take away a little freedom and rebelliousness, and not give anything back. Then we have succeeded in give you a selfish faith that does not do anything for anybody except you.
Part of the problem with the marketing consumer culture today is that its appeals come to you in isolation. Even though we are here in church, a religion that simply says, “hey, you be you,” sounds like do what you want and find your bliss, and live in complete and utter isolation. We all want inner peace, but we can only achieve it through being connected to something greater than ourselves If this religion is about your needs getting filled, then it is going to fall short of meaning, and you will be alone. The problem with the consumer faith is that it asks what am I going to get out of this. If that is our approach, then we are probably better off worshipping at the mall. If we want a serious religious faith that is going to transform us, and possibly transform the world, then we need to ask, what am I going to give to this? The culture tells us to shop because we are empty, and need to be filled up. It says you need this; the economy needs this. Women especially deny themselves or empty themselves to reach the ideal form. Then their food or their manna to fill themselves is shopping. Their therapy is shopping. But this therapy has no meaning outside of the self. There is no larger meaning, no relationship.
When we give to something larger it gives meaning because then we are saying there is something greater than me. Peace, contentment, forgiveness, change all come through relationship with the universe and others. Religion says give back what you have been given, love one another, help those in need. Last weekend I met someone who said he knew Jesus said love as you would want to be loved, but what about this love your enemies stuff? And I said he believed that religion was about making peace in all your relationships, extending the hand of love and friendship to everyone, not just those who make you feel good. Religion. It’s not about you. It’s about us. All of us who need your love, your care, your understanding. Emily Dickinson once said that the only commandment she ever obeyed was to consider the lilies. She recalls that our deepest commitment in life is not to fulfill our needs by having a successful career, or making money or being famous, but rather it is to be open to what some call God, or the spirit of life, so that we are fully present to one another in love and understanding, in this moment, right now. So it is never about what you can get for yourself, but asks what you can give to others.
Closing Words – from Matthew 6:28-29
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.