Materialism

Here’s something that puzzles me. Almost every story ever told conveys the message that happiness doesn’t come from material things. Stories (whether in books, in movies, or told around a campfire) almost always say that happiness comes from stuff like love, friendship, family, meaningful achievements, and/or adherence to higher principles.

It’s really really hard to find a story that says otherwise. I’ll grant that material things are often thrown in as an extra reward; Lizzie Bennet (from “Pride & Prejudice”) doesn’t just marry the man she loves, she also ends up rich. But the money is just icing on the cake. Contrast Lizzie with her friend Charlotte who ends up with money, but doesn’t love the man she marries. We instinctively see Charlotte as miserable, while we know that Lizzie will have a happy life.

Even “Atlas Shrugged” is idealistic in its way. None of its “admirable” characters are merely chasing money; they endure a fair amount of grief “in the name of the best within them”. They could all be materially comfortable, but they give it up on behalf of higher principles. I think they’re all pretty despicable, but they sacrifice a lot of material gain in pursuit of their beliefs.

So with pretty much all of human fiction making the point that “stuff isn’t enough”, why does so much non-fiction uncritically assume the opposite? I read article after article which take it for granted that readers are all mindless materialists. Often the articles are making points like, “Don’t kill yourself trying to have it all,” but they start from the premise that readers have never heard this before…as if readers have never read a book, seen a movie, watched TV, or even played a video game.

It’s not that people don’t realize materialism is shallow and stultifying. It’s just that the structure of modern society makes non-materialism very very difficult. We’re brainwashed by ads, even though we know better…and if we want to feed our kids or eat anything ourselves, we’re often forced to grub for money, even though we know it’s not going to satisfy our inner hungers.

I just wish non-fiction recognized that people aren’t totally naive about the hollowness of acquisition. We need strategies, not sermons. We aren’t stupid, we’re stuck.

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