“The easier that life has become in a consumers’…society, the more difficult it will be to remain aware of the urges of necessity by which it is driven, even when pain and effort, the outward manifestations of necessity, are hardly noticeable at all. The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a neverending process, would no longer be able to recognize its own futility—the futility of a life which ‘does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject which endures after [its] labour is past.‘”
Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, pg. 135
New years call for new resolutions, and one of mine is to be more frugal. Part of my reasoning is plainly economic: I want to save more money in order to ensure an economically secure future for myself. But there is also ideological motivation. Learning how to live on less is a way to reject the prevailing capitalist ethos of Western society, along with what it represents: materialism, vanity, and consumerism.
Part of what this rejection entails is divesting myself from the treadmill of consumer psychology, namely, the cycle of desire (for self-fulfillment via commodity consumption), gratification (via commodity consumption), eventual boredom and subsequent relapse into unsatiated desire for commodity-induced self-fulfillment. Intellectually I know this cycle leads nowhere good, yet it’s striking how persistent it is in practice, how irresistible it feels to be drawn into, for example, thinking that the purchase of a new toothbrush will usher in a new “me”.
When I think about stepping out of this treadmill of consumer psychology I imagine what might fill its place in my everyday experience. Usually I imagine being able to connect to a level of reality that is more true, objective, and timeless. If I’m not distracted by the treadmill, my reasoning goes, I will have more mental space to devote to more important things like stewarding relationships, writing, and taking care of my body. And once I’m more intently focused on things like these, when my limited attention is invested in these kinds of goals that many individuals have strived for (in contrast with my highly individual desire for a new toothbrush/self), I will assume a firmer grounding in reality, in the things that matter.
What is the purpose of friendship?
What is or ought to be the relationship between writing and living?
What is the ideal balance between safeguarding my health and taking physical risks?
These and other questions will become more central and vital in my mind. They will challenge and provoke me in ways that buying a toothbrush, with its flimsy acquiescence to my vanity, never will be able to. But I will be better able to meet these challenges because I will know that there has been a long lineage of individuals, some more well-known than others, who have also lived with similar questions. Aristotle wrote at length about different kinds of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics. More recently, Michael Ventura has written about the relationship between writing and life in an essay called The Talent of the Room. There’s also the elderly woman who I sat next to on airplane who told me about her long, satisfying life, and her plans to write a memoir about it. If I’m engaged with these more longstanding human concerns, I become a fellow traveler with these individuals and am warmed and illuminated by their company.
Of course, this may not be the case. The practice of frugality is no spiritual panacea and can, after all, breed its own pathologies. The desire to save can be as consuming and treadmill-like as the desire to spend. Prudence can devolve into miserliness. Yet I tend to think that in a society such as the United States where, as David Brooks has written, the commercial-oriented “resume virtues” enjoy greater cultural prominence than the character-forming “eulogy virtues,” a reinvigorated practice of frugality could leave more space for something better.