Opting Out

Christmas is a hard time to think about opting out of consumer society. Or maybe not. In one sense, it's hard because all around people are buying stuff and receiving gifts and generally wrapped up in the material posessions that make them happy. So envy, of both posessions and people, can make it hard. On the other hand, wanton commercialization around the holiday season has gotten so bad that even the most jaded yuppies probably notice it. So our moral and aesthetic judgements of the season's excesses can make it easier to consider alternatives.

The most important thing I've done to "opt out" of the society of desire is stop watching television. On the one hand, this has improved my life because I do not, in general, suffer from cravings for the latest video games or movies or cars or books or other widgets. Also, I am freed from the paranoid atmosphere which television advertisers, journalists, and dramatists foster each for their respective purposes. The down side is that I also feel, at times, very alone, very excluded from the collective consciousness of the species which, let's face it, is centered squarely on the boob tube. The internet can help a lot in this latter regard; if I would use it more dilligently than I do now it would be relatively easy to substitute an online virtual community for the virtual community I lost when I turned away from TV. And the online community is superior to the television community in many ways. For one, it listens when I talk back to it.

Another thing I've done to opt out of consumer society, deliberately or accidentally, is to surround myself with intelligent people who don't care overmuch about such things. Austin, TX, is a good place to be interested in nonconsensus reality, because despite the best efforts of the Starbuckses and Piers 1 of the world, Austin is still wierd. And austin will probably always be weird, to a greater or lesser extent, because of the concentration of educated intellectuals from all over the state at the University of Texas. The state and the school are some of the largest in the nation, and Austin tends to function as a refuge for bright young folks from the ignorant backwoods hellholes they were raised in. I would not go so far to say that rural life is inherently bad, but there's no question that people in big cities tend to be better educated and better paid. Austin, in particular, is often touted as the most educated city in the world on a per-capita basis. Even the cable guy's got an MA in something or other. And the most essential process of education is to make people tolerant of others' viewpoints.

What's more, I'm situated close enough to the University where I work and learn that I don't have to use my car very often. In point of fact, it would be fairly easy for me to do without a car entirely in my present situation; groceries, entertainment, food, work, and education are all within a few blocks' walking distance of my front door. College campuses tend to be some of the greatest pedestrian communities in the world, and UT's, being so large and so old, is a fairly stellar example. I've got a friend who's been living in west campus for years without a car, caring for his sick mother, walking everywhere and working out of a small apartment priced for and targetted at the student market. The *dis*advantage of this location is that the real estate is expensive, and thus that the population tends to be wealthy rich-kid and frat-brother types. So from a keeping-up-with-the-neighbors perspective, it can be hard to adopt an openly anti-materialist lifestyle.

Still, all and all, I'm not doing too badly. I make $1600 a month and it's more than enough for me; in fact I'm inadvertently saving up quite a bundle while I'm in school. By the time I graduate I will probably be able to put a down-payment on a house. What I need to be doing right now is paying more attention to my living space; it needs to be cleaned and redecorated to be really comfortable, and up to now I really haven't had the emotional energy or the time to do these things since, barring spending a lot of money, they entail a lot of work. Hopefully over the winter break I'll have time to get some of that done.

So what did I resolve? First, to put more effort into developing and maintaining an on-line community that I can feel a part of as a TV-replacement. Second, to pay more attention to the upkeep of my pad, so that it's a pleasant place to be both by myself and with company.



I've defiled so many virgin journals in my life; I can never commit. I can be pretty good about keeping a journal when my life's in the crapper, but as soon as things turn around (which writing itself tends to induce) I lose interest and go back to fiddling with LEGOs or something. And that's no way to maintain a relationship.

Now, when I say "my life's in the crapper," what I really mean is "I'm depressed." From an objective point of view, my life is categorically *not* in the crapper. I have a beautiful girlfriend and a spacious condo within walking distance of the university where I am a successful graduate student in synthetic chemistry. I get along great with my happily-married-after-thirty-years parents and I see them once or twice a week. The stipend I get from the university is more than enough to live comfortably on. And yet my baseline happiness level is low; so low, in fact, that I am often tempted to the use of pseudolegal drugs to elevate my mood.

It's a pervasive phenomenon, now and probably always in American (and possibly general human) society: The person who has all the secular trappings of a happy life and yet is still fairly *un*happy on a day-to-day basis. A lot of people--my parents, for instance--would tell me that what's missing in my life is spirituality, and to a point I think I'm inclined to agree. This is a touchy subject for me, however; my break with the Church of Christ as a teenager was acrimonious and I am still bitter about it. I believe the essential tenets of Christian dogma are irrational and readily corrupted to justify all kinds of horrific actions and attitudes. What's more, by the time it's watered down enough that I can stomach it, it's become as limp and flavorless as unitarianism. I personally think the whole enterprise should be scrapped and our attitudes reconfigured along the lines of the Dalai Lama's teachings, the gist of which, as I understand them, is:

Compassion for the sufferings of others is the only lasting way to ease one's own, personal, suffering.

This is a philosophical judo-throw in the spirit of Adam Smith--the selflessness of selfishness. The analogy to laissez-faire economics is not hard to make. "By serving one's own interest, one ultimately serves the communal interest."

Some folks, I suppose, would be offended by that analogy. But I think it's accurate, to a point. The difference is that Smith's and the Dalai Lama's arguments are opposed in their causalities: Smith starts by asking "What makes for a happy society?" and answers "Selfish people"; the Dalai Lama starts by asking "What makes for a happy person?" and answers "Selfless concern for society." This is a vast simplification of both arguments, of course, and it may not be possible to draw any really meaningful conclusions from it. We should not, for instance, give in to the superficial temptation to say that capitalism is thus incompatible with personal happiness as the Dalai Lama sees it.

Or should we?

There's no doubt whatsoever that consumer society is bad for personal happiness, or at least that a philosophy which is grounded too strongly in materialism is bad for personal happiness. And it seems clear that when the monetary powers-that-be pursue their own rational self-interest in the spirit of Smith what results is a consumer society filled with advertisements and meaningless schlock to be bought and sold. And to make such a large market for so much stuff that people really don't need one has to generate a culture of consumption in which people feel inadequate without late models cars, appliances, homes, etc. Desire, the Buddhists say, is the origin of suffering.

Thus, isn't a culture that feeds on material desire really a culture that feeds on human suffering?I think just maybe it is. So how do I opt out?

Therein lies the rub.