The materialism and consumerism of our culture is easy to look down on, despite how much a part of it most of us are. But seeing materialism as simply superficial is a too superficial view of it.
The desire for material things is a psychological compensation for other deep desires: Because we can’t “have it all” in our soul-lives, we try to “have it all” in our bodily lives. Think about a person with an eating disorder. The desire is not just for food. Eating the food is an attempt to satisfy other needs.
By “bodily lives” I mean the pleasures of the senses: the better TV, the more luxurious car, the cashmere sweater, the leather sofa.
By “soul lives” I mean our emotional lives. For instance, the competition in consuming (My purse/watch/car is as good or better than yours, ie, as expensive or more so.) is a need to be perceived as OK, acceptable to a group and to oneself, valuable, worthwhile. “I’m worth something! My worth is shown by the worth of my STUFF. It proves my worth. Look how much I’m worth.”
There are other soul desires that are compensated for by stuff. For instance, I want a rewarding, challenging career that I’m passionate about, and I also want to be there for my kids, to go to their games, their plays, their recitals, help them with homework, and I also want to have time with just my spouse and maintain and build that relationship, and I also want to work out several times a week and pursue a few of my own interests and hobbies, and I also want to read and, and , and.
It is so important to understand materialism on a deep level because it is one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time, in that it is the root cause of our environmental crisis. The earth gets despoiled because we crave more and more stuff that must be made out of it.
And on the deepest level, materialism is about the soul’s hunger. It yearns for something, and the hunger is apparently infinite. Maybe this is because what it yearns for is infinite. Connection, love, nirvana, God, enlightenment, oneness, whatever we call it.
Hungers for the infinite are infinite. It seems to be one of the ways that, as some Eastern traditions put it, Thou art that, or in Western idiom, we’re made in the image of God, or in the language of medieval alchemists, As above so below.
But infinite hungers aren’t the fashion nowadays. The ads are for desires we can believe we can satisfy.