Created on: February 16, 2013 Last Updated: February 17, 2013
"Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything," suggested Sylvia Plath in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar, published the same year she committed suicide, "it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing."
Plath's comment plays on different categories of things that people want. Everyone, at various times, craves a material luxury or two, but every person also has the capacity to focus on the pursuit of deeper kinds of happiness for themselves and others. What Plath appears to be saying, then, is that when a person no longer seeks meaningful kinds of happiness, they will tend to fill the void with superficial or unattainable desires — most likely, a literal shopping list.
For these replacement desires are often materialist in nature. Desires for specific consumer goods are not innate in people, but are rather culturally produced, promoted through media vehicles like paid advertisements and through the "conspicuous consumption" of one's neighbors.
Tom Hayden worried in The Lost Gospel of the Earth (1996) that "advertising, the stimulant of consumption, has more than doubled per capita since 1965. Newspapers devote 65 percent of their space to ads, and the typical American child sees 360,000 television commercials before high school graduation." All this, he noted, in a world that still witnesses 35,000 deaths from hunger every single day.
These extremes may not form a contradiction but instead may betray an underlying relationship. Indeed, Wayne Teasdale wrote that materialism holds the world back from solving problems of inequality. "One of the most serious obstacles to building a universal civilization with a heart — a compassionate world structure of government, commerce, and culture — is the attitude," Teasdale wrote in A Monk in the World (2002), "that the goods of this world are ends in themselves and that in their pursuit people are essentially expendable." In other words, when someone fixates greedily on a consumer product, their respect and concern for other human beings diminishes. In the increasingly frenzied shopping ritually performed in the United States on the day after Thanksgiving, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death in 2008.
Material desires are not in themselves evil or harmful. Everyone likes a good meal and a comfortable bed — these things are pleasurable by definition. Most people enjoy an occasional small indulgence like a thriller
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