People more valuable than sum of their possessions

Bernadette Rudolph
Faculty Member
Special Contributor

The start of another school year and the accompanying ritual of back-to-school clothes shopping with my teen-age daughter! It begins with us wrestling over which clothes to keep and which to discard. In the process, I sense two values in her judgments, values she has learned from her peers and from the larger American society, namely, “I should have new clothes because it is good to have new clothes, regardless of need.” and “I should discard anything that people have seen me in more than a few times.”

These values belong to the belief system called consumerism in which a person’s value is based on what he/she has and how much. It can be seen when someone “needs” to buy another pair of shoes because she has had a bad day –as if a thirtieth pair will somehow fix the fact that she and her roommate do not get along. It can be seen when someone “needs” to buy Madden 2011 because Madden 2010 is so yesterday. Consumerism leads to buying bigger cars, houses, and barbecue grills, the latest electronic devices and more jewelry, books, music and clothes.

Yet, the buying does not satisfy in the long run. The pleasure of the newly bought item is fleeting. It is quickly replaced by a desire for something else. Unease constantly gnaws in the belly.

How did America get here, thinking that stuff could satisfy? In every society there is a tension between the rights and needs of the individual and the rights and needs of society. In this culture, the individual has been overemphasized. So the wise proposition that each person should be allowed to reach his/her full potential has been distorted into the egotistical view that each person has the right to what he/she wants when he/she wants it. When combined with the capitalist value that the strength of the economy depends on the constant purchasing of goods, consumerism blossoms and the worth of a person is reduced to what he/she has.

However, the truth is that each person is more than his/her possessions. Humans are creators, thinkers, artists, builders, lovers, givers, and healers. Humans are loved by God and called to nothing less than union with the divine for all eternity. This fall, can we reclaim our greater selves and be content with our old clothes?